Leading Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab is due a court verdict on Monday after a sham trial.
Rajab wrote the following letter from jail to the co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Joseph Pitts (R-PA). The commission has held a series of hearings on Bahrain in recent years, most recently in September 2016, when I testified about Nabeel Rajab's case.
Dear Co-Chairs McGovern and Pitts,
I write to you from my jail cell in East Riffa, Bahrain, where my government has arbitrarily detained me since 13 June 2016 in relation to my work as president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). Though this is not the first time I have been detained for my work as a human rights defender, I am currently facing charges related solely to exercising my right to free expression. This time, I could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for tweets. After I wrote an open letter describing my situation in the New York Times, the authorities leveled another charge of "spreading false news" against me, which can add another year in prison. But no matter how many charges my government bring against me for speaking in defense of human rights, I cannot be silent.
Yet, while I have grave concern for the rapid deterioration of my country's human rights situation, I also retain great hope that the United States - as one of Bahrain's closest allies - can stand as a champion for free civil society and democracy.
Since 2011, Bahraini authorities have imprisoned thousands of individuals on charges related solely to their exercise of free expression, assembly, and association. Due to this influx of prisoners of conscience, Bahrain has the largest number of prisoners per capita in the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Arbitrary arrests, torture, and enforced disappearances occur almost daily.
My case represents just one of countless examples of the systematic failure of Bahrain's legal system to ensure impartial investigations, guarantee defendants their due process rights, and implement basic fair trial standards. One of the tweets for which I am currently on trial described the epidemic of torture within Bahrain's prisons and detention centers, for example. In the years since 2011, the Bahraini criminal justice system has only deepened its reliance on abuse to extract false confessions. Many victims I encounter report that courts used coerced confessions as the primary or even only evidence for convicting and incarcerating them.
The Bahraini government regularly points to new mechanisms through which victims can submit complaints about torture and other violations as signs of positive reform. However, these institutions are deeply flawed and often lead to further abuse. The government's accountability mechanisms, such as the Ministry of Interior's Office of the Ombudsman, are neither impartial nor independent. Indeed, rather than reduce abuse, the Ombudsman has appeared to conceal it. We have documented cases where the authorities have retaliated against victims who try to utilize the Ombudsman's complaint processes. When defendants attempt to raise allegations of torture in court rather than through a formal complaint, judges regularly ignored the claims or threatened to dismiss them, continuing the trial in absentia.
Bahraini authorities also routinely prevent detainees from accessing a lawyer. Prosecutors are not required to inform detainees of their rights, and if a detainee does request the presence of a lawyer, officials typically demand the attorney arrive immediately. If the defendant's lawyer cannot make it to the location within a half hour, the interrogation or trial will proceed without them. In many cases, the authorities have threatened to subject defendants to further torture and abuse for requesting legal assistance.
Once court proceedings begin, defendants are at the mercy of a biased judiciary that lacks sufficient independence from the government. Judges are appointed by royal decree and many are members of the ruling Al Khalifa family. More still, a significant number of those judges who are not royals are foreign contractors. These foreign judges typically serve on short-term contracts available for renewal at the discretion of royal authorities. It is therefore in the judges' interest to issue verdicts that please the ruling family. With most forms of free expression, assembly, and association already criminalized under Bahraini law, trials quickly devolve into "kangaroo courts" wherein judges issue harsh sentences for charges that violate international law and perpetuate arbitrary detention. A number of Bahrain's leading human rights defenders remain imprisoned on life sentences for their peaceful participation in the 2011 pro-democracy movement, for example, such as my friend and BCHR cofounder, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. The government has done the same for the country's most prominent political figures, including Dr. Abdujalil al-Singace, activist and leader of the Haq opposition movement.
Despite multiple promises to reform, including its acceptance of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, the Government of Bahrain has failed to implement proposals to increase judicial independence, institute protections for due process, and ensure fair trials. By flouting basic human rights and due process, the Bahraini government has further undermined the country's embattled civil society, fueling protests and political instability not seen since 2011.
The United States and Bahrain are close military allies, but the relationship can no longer be dominated by a myopic view of security. My current detention is representative of a broader, nearly unprecedented attack on Bahraini civil society in recent months that has included the mass judicial harassment of religious leaders and the dissolution of the largest opposition group, al-Wefaq. In May, a Bahraini appellate court overturned al-Wefaq Secretary-General Sheikh Ali Salman's acquittal on charges of "attempting to overthrow the government" regarding a peaceful political speech he delivered. This apparent case of double jeopardy extended his total prison sentence from four years to nine years. The leaders of other major opposition groups, such as the Secretary-General of the al-Wahdawi political society, Fadhil Abbas, remain in prison on charges related solely to their free expression. Although authorities recently released the leader of the Wa'ad society, Ibrahim Sharif, after he completed a year-long prison term related to a political speech, prosecutors are reportedly seeking to appeal the original sentence to secure additional prison time. The government's campaign against civil society and free expression, and particularly the 'legal' repression of the criminal justice system, has driven the probability of successful dialogue and political reconciliation to a record low.
To secure long-term stability in Bahrain and the region, the US must take a more comprehensive view of the security partnership, taking action to champion civil society actors and promote opportunities for peaceful, democratic political dialogue. I therefore urge the US Congress to cut off weapons sales to Bahrain until the government releases all political prisoners and truly implements human rights reforms such as those outlined by the BICI in 2011. I similarly call on Congress to publically request contingency plans for the relocation of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet from the Department of Defense, as the Bahraini government increasingly jeopardizes the tenability of the base. Finally, the US must also pressure Bahrain to include human rights education in bilateral security cooperation to address problematic trends, including religious discrimination, which deepen societal division and increase the likelihood of police violence. In the absence of such reform, US military assistance will effectively empower a disproportionately foreign-born, sectarian security force that systematically excludes the country's majority Shia population.
The United States Government is in a unique position to drive human rights reform in Bahrain, and I believe it is time, together with Congressional leadership, for it to fully leverage this influence to promote positive change in my country. Without strong US support for human rights reform, the Bahraini government will continue to undercut a peaceful resolution to the political crisis and drive further insecurity in the region. It is up to Congress to ensure the US Government makes both the ethical and the strategic choice on Bahrain, for they are one in the same. The US needs to fulfill its stated commitments to promote human rights and freedom in all nations, and especially in its closest allies.