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Bahraini Activist Nabeel Rajab Has Been Freed — For Now

The human rights activist spoke to VICE News on his release after serving nearly four months in prison for a tweet. Some 3,000 political prisoners are believed to still be incarcerated in the Gulf state.
Image by VICE News

"I'm happy to be back to my family and to my people," Nabeel Rajab said immediately.

The activist, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), was speaking from his home in the Gulf state. After more than three months spent in solitary confinement, he was released on Monday evening.

Earlier this year, Rajab was charged with harming civil peace and insulting a statutory body in violation of the law through Twitter — resulting in a six-month prison sentence. That ruling was upheld in May by an appeals court.


Late on Monday, the Bahrain News Agency released a statement saying that King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa had granted Rajab a special pardon "for health reasons."

Rajab — a member of Bahrain's Shia majority — claimed to have been tortured while in prison two years ago, but told VICE News that his treatment this time was much more respectful. "This treatment led me to believe that they want to release me."

He spent his detention in a small room — three by four meters (9ft 10 by 13ft) at an estimate — with two bunk beds inside. "I was there by myself," Rajab said.

"But I was allowed go out of this area to a small corridor — about one by nine meters." Throughout his incarceration he received twice weekly visits from his family, who provided him with books and newspapers. He spent the rest of his time exercising and reading, and listened to Bob Marley songs on a music player.

Bahrain News Agency | HM King issues royal decree pardoning Nabeel Rajab — Bahrain News Agency (@bna_en)July 13, 2015

During the short periods he had with relatives, Rajab was filled in on the global attention his case was receiving. "Maybe that's why I was not feeling alone… but knowing the support that I have from the international community, from human rights organizations, that makes me believe that I am not alone."

Rajab said he hopes he won't be arrested again, "although the level of tolerance to criticism is very low and it's getting lower and lower."


His release makes him hopeful "that there might be somebody in the government who wants to have an end to the crisis besetting the government and will take this positive opportunity so more people are released and all the political problems we are facing are solved."

Related: Former Inmates at Bahrain's Jaw Prison Describe Being Tortured and Teargassed

While Rajab said he plans on returning to work straight away, he told VICE News he wants to work in a way that won't put him in detention — though ruefully recalled making the same resolution last time he was detained. "But criticism is part of a human rights defender's work and activity so that will continue and the struggle will continue and the work will continue."

When asked whether his messages would be tempered for fear of rearrest, Rajab conceded that he is now being forced to manage a precarious balancing act. "My influence, my impact when I am outside is much stronger than when I am inside, and I want to remain outside [though] I know there is no guarantee… I always try to continue my struggle peacefully, respecting international standards without confronting with the government."

Rajab is not the only high profile Bahraini to serve prison time. In June, opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman was sentenced to four years in prison, convicted of inciting disobedience and hatred, and "insulting an official body." Salman is a Shia Muslim cleric who heads Bahrain's opposition movement, al Wefaq.


On Sunday, Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni Muslim who once led the Waed secular group, was rearrested just three weeks after his June 19 release. Sharif has already served four years in prison over his involvement in the 2011 Shia-led anti-government protests.

According to Rajab, the decision about his own release was made before Ibrahim Sharif was rearrested, so the two developments are not linked. However, he admitted Sharif's arrest is a disappointment. "He came out with the same positive language that I'm trying to present here," Rajab said, before describing Sharif as "a man who [could] bridge two sides of the conflict here."

With further cases against him pending, Rajab is currently under a travel ban that means he can't leave Bahrain. Regardless, he said he would like to stay. "I am one of the many people who believes that the struggle should be from within the country," he said. "Very difficult circumstances. A lot of pressure. Very dangerous. Cost very high. But still I do believe in the country and I don't want to leave."

"The international pressure at the same time has been proven to be the most effective way [to free him]," Sayed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and one of the activists abroad stripped of their citizenship earlier this year, told VICE News.

Alwadaei — a friend of Rajab and his family — then noted the other court cases still pending against Rajab. "They could be used against him at any time."


He continued: "The message from the authorities is that okay, we can early release you because we're under pressure, but don't misuse this opportunity and speak out again because we'll send you back to the prison immediately."

Related: 'It Couldn't Be Clearer That They Don't Care': Bahrain's Opposition Leader Gets Four Year Jail Term

Nicholas McGeehan, Bahrain researcher for Human Rights Watch, told VICE News that he felt Rajab's release was positive, though the context around it wasn't as promising.

"There are still hundreds of political prisoners in Bahrain," he said. "I guess you just have to be optimistic that this is the start of something rather than just an isolated incident, but we need to see more of these incidents before we draw any conclusions."

McGeehan also pointed to Monday's statement by British Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, calling it a "long overdue change in tone" from the UK government.

Ellwood said: "The UK government is concerned by the decision to uphold Nabeel Rajab's conviction. I raised this case at Ministerial level during my visit to Bahrain in June. We will continue to make clear to the Government of Bahrain that the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression must be respected."

Rajab has been highly critical of the UK's close relationship with Bahrain, evidenced by the decision to build a permanent naval base there. The country's king is a regular guest of Queen Elizabeth, attending the annual Windsor Horse Show with her.


On Monday, the UK parliament confirmed that 2.1 million pounds ($3.28m) are currently budgeted to assist Bahrain in 2015-16, "in its reform program, aimed at strengthening human rights and the rule of law."

The BCHR estimates that more than 3,000 Bahrainis are currently being held in arbitrary detention, and that many of those have been subjected to physical or psychological torture or violence.

Last week the European Parliament referenced this figure when it called for the release of political prisoners — including Rajab — as well calling for a European Union ban on exports of tear gas and crowd control equipment to Bahrain until investigations are conducted into their improper use. The resolution also condemned the "continuing use of torture."

When asked whether he felt Rajab's release was evidence of a cat-and-mouse game being played by the Bahraini authorities, McGeehan said: "That's a nice way of describing it. Yes, I think so, I don't think we should be popping the champagne just yet.

"When you arrest one activist on the Saturday and release another on the Monday what kind of message are you trying to send and to whom?"

McGeehan continued: "Sharif's arrest on Saturday would suggest that any criticism of the authorities is going to result in an arrest so I don't think that situation has changed, I think Nabeel is an outspoken individual, he will not keep quiet, so I think that remains to be seen."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Watch the VICE News documentary, Bahrain: An Inconvenient Uprising.