Rights group tells Trump to show ‘some spine’ after Bahrain sentences activist to five years

State Department expressed "serious concern" over Nabeel Rajab's sentencing, but President Trump has remained silent.

Human Rights Defender Nabeel Rajab take a part on 3 November 2014 in Manama, Bahrain, the capital after releasing him from prison. CREDIT: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Human Rights Defender Nabeel Rajab take a part on 3 November 2014 in Manama, Bahrain, the capital after releasing him from prison. CREDIT: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

A Bahraini human rights activist has been sentenced to five years in prison on Wednesday for tweeting critical statements about Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes on Yemen and saying that Bahrain tortures prisoners.

Reuters reports that Nabeel Rajab, who has been in and out of prison in the Gulf Arab Kingdom for years now, was convicted on charges of “insulting a neighboring country” and “insulting national institutions.” His son, Adam, tweeted that Rajab laughed in the courtroom upon hearing the verdict.

While U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed “serious concern” over Rajab’s treatment, the fact is, Bahrain is a U.S. ally, hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a crucial naval base across the Persian Gulf from Iran — the only state in the region President Donald Trump truly views as a enemy state.

“It’s time the Trump administration showed some spine in standing up to the dictatorship in Bahrain,” Brian Dooley, a senior adviser at the U.S.-based group Human Rights First told the Associated Press (AP). “It should take punitive action over this verdict and send the American ambassador to visit Rajab in prison to tell him that the U.S. is on his side and against this reckless repression.”

When Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa visited Washington in November, President Trump focused on investments and weapons sales, making no public mention of human rights issues in Bahrain. Reporting the visit, the AP quoted Trump as saying that the relationship between the two countries will only improve with Bahrain “doing a lot of business” in the United States and “buying a lot of things.”

Rajab is not counting on Trump’s support for human rights activists in Bahrain. In December, he wrote a letter from prison, drawing a direct line between Trump’s support for Bahrain and the increasingly bloody crackdowns in his country:

Two weeks ago, I watched from my cell as President Trump gleefully announced the sale of $9 billion worth of arms to Bahrain, including finalizing the purchase of American F-16 jets. At a time when Bahrain faces serious economic challenges partly due to the slump in oil prices, this deal comes as a great comfort to human rights abusers. It is a political signal from Washington that the Bahraini regime can continue to commit atrocities at home and abroad and still receive American support. Under President Barack Obama, a sale of American F-16s to the Bahraini government was made conditional upon the improvement of the regime’s human rights record. Now, the Bahraini government knows it can do what it wants with impunity. It will continue to receive U.S. support no matter how bloody its hands become.

Bahrain is also part of the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen’s Houthi rebels since 2015. Bahrain is part of the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), made up of the Saudi coalition of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. JIAT has a a clear pattern of clearing Saudi Arabia of blame for civilian deaths in Yemen, for which it is now nonetheless being investigated by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The two Gulf kingdoms are also part of the axis participating in a blockade against Qatar since June 2017 in the so-called Gulf Crisis.

Bahrain, a Shia majority island state run by the al-Khalifa Sunni monarchy, does not accept any form of dissent, frequently locking up pro-democracy activists and Shia politicians alike. Rajab’s run-ins with the authorities have been well documented, and almost farcical at times. For instance, in January of 2012, he was beaten by riot police, who then arrested him claiming they’d found him “lying down.”

“No, I’m not lying down – you’re beating me,” Rajab said at the time.