Two prominent Bahraini human rights activists face prison sentences at trials this week for activities that Amnesty International and other groups call the peaceful expression of their rights.
Three years ago during pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, Nabeel Rajab argued with policemen, while Zeinab al-Khawaja, at the back of the crowd, texted and posted on social media.
This week they are both on trial. Al-Khawaja is charged with tearing a picture of Bahrain’s king, which she did for a second time, in a courtroom, while on trial for doing it once before. Her father is in prison for his role in the 2011 protests.
Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, faces up to three years in jail for two tweets he sent that the government says insulted public institutions. He only got out of jail in May, serving two years on a similar charge, and was rearrested just after returning from a speaking tour in Europe.
Said Yousif AlMuhafdha, Rajab’s deputy, spoke via Skype from exile in Germany, and said, “It’s not about the tweet. We believe it’s a reprisal for his peaceful activities. No human rights activists right now in Bahrain can speak out about what’s happening in Bahrain.”
Amnesty International’s Said Haddadi calls Rajab and al-Khawaja “prisoners of conscience.”
“From an international law perspective, there is no basis for the Bahraini authorities to detain Nabeel or any other person who is critical of their policies, who are peacefully expressing their opinion,” said Haddadi.
Bahrain’s embassy in London did not respond to an interview request, but the government says it has implemented a series of reforms since 2011. Amnesty International says the impact has been very limited.
“We have a double-sided picture, one with some positive, though limited, legal and institutional reform, but at the level of the openness of the authorities and their acceptance of criticism is at a very low position at the moment,” said Haddadi.
Activist AlMuhafdha said in practical terms, the situation is “worse than ever.”
“What’s happening on the ground is no reform at all. The number of people being arrested is more," said AlMuhafdha. "The number of people being killed is more. There is no freedom at all. There was no reform at all."
Efforts to pressure the Bahraini government are complicated by its close relations with western countries, its participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition, and its role as host of a U.S. naval base.
Still, the United States has criticized the prosecution of Rajab, and has called for fair treatment of al-Khawaja.