Amnesty Decries Bahrain Holding ‘Prisoners Of Conscience’ As Regime Promises Harsher Crackdown

Bahraini rights activist Nabeel Rajab leads a group of protesters

The tiny Gulf sheikhdom of Bahrain promised an even harsher crackdown on its internal oppoenents on the same day a premier international human rights organization decried the country’s imprisonment of “prisoners of conscience.” The latest episodes — emblematic of a continuing disconnect between the country’s Sunni leadership and the Shiite majority — mark a potential escalation between the government and protesters who rose up last February.

A close U.S. ally that hosts the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain promised reforms after an independent commission last fall cited problems with the response to demonstrations. No tangible steps toward reforms, though, have been initiated. Talks between the government and the opposition failed to get underway, and this February, tens of thousands of demonstrators revived on-going robust protests. Now, the government appears to have had enough. A Bahraini government spokesman, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, told the news agency Reuters:

Because of the escalation in violence, we are looking into the perpetrators and people who use print, broadcast and social media to encourage illegal protest and violence around the country.

If applying the law means tougher action, then so be it.

Al Khalifa’s accusations against protesters must resonate with human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. While few credible reports about the protests cite widespread violence against the government, Rajab’s case offers a window into other charges Al Khalifa levels against the movement. Rajab was already facing charges of participating in an “illegal” demonstration — meaning any demonstration at all in Bahrain — and was on Saturday arrested by authorities at the door of his airplane as he returned from foreign travel.

The new charges against Rajab? An active user of the social media platform with almost 150,000 followers, Rajab was arrested for sending “insulting tweets” about the government.

Today, Amnesty International declared Rajab a “prisoner of conscience.” Sanjeev Bery, Amnesty International USA’s Middle East & North Africa advocacy director, said:

It is utterly ridiculous that the Bahraini government would arrest human rights advocate Nabeel Rajab for sending tweets. Instead of attempting to silence critics, the Bahraini government needs to start listening to what they have to say about free speech and freedom of expression. Rajab is a prisoner of conscience being held solely for expressing his views. He must be released immediately.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights itself warns that another activist — Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja — is in dire straits due to a two-month old hunger strike against his detention. Amnesty chimed in on that case, which involves another 20 activists, as well today, noting: “Amnesty International considers all those currently detained in the case as prisoners of conscience and is calling for their immediate and unconditional release.”