by Jen Marlowe
Nabeel Rajab (@nabeelrajab) sat in the living room, pecking at the iPad perched on his crossed knee.
“How are you?” he asked as I entered the house.
“How are you?” I asked him in reply.
He removed his glasses and grinned wryly. “Doing my last tweets.”
Just a few hours earlier, Nabeel’s verdict for one of his four outstanding charges had been issued. He was sentenced to three months in prison, effective immediately.
Nabeel is the co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (click here if you are inside Bahrain and cannot access their main URL), a prominent figure in Bahrain’s pro-democracy struggle, and an uncompromising critic of the Bahraini regime and the brutal methods it employs in suppressing dissent. The three month prison sentence is his punishment for tweeting a sarcastic comment about the Prime Minister.
“I heard for one of your last tweets, you sent that same tweet again.”
Nabeel’s grin widened. “I did that.”
His wife woke Nabeel up in the morning with the news of his three month prison verdict. He lay in bed wrapping his brain around it. He was not in shock, angry or upset, he told me, but he was surprised. He was not expecting to be convicted, much less sentenced to three months in prison. It must be connected to the tweets he had been sending out in the last few days, he surmised, tweets that very directly criticized the king and prime minister. He was convicted for an old tweet, but the sentencing was revenge for his recent tweeting.
He got out of bed after a few moments. He had friends and family to sit with before the police came to him, he had his lawyer to meet with, and he had his final tweets to write.
How could the government justify locking him up for three months, how could they explain this to the international community, Nabeel wondered aloud to me. Perhaps they would not even try to justify it, he answered his own question. “Because they (the Bahraini regime) have the support of United States. They have the support – or the silence – of the international community. That is seen here as a green signal. That is why they are proceeding. More oppression, more attacks against human rights defenders.”
Nabeel had been in prison for most of the previous two months. In fact, I had first met Nabeel the day he was released from his last prison stint. And now, less than two weeks later, he was being incarcerated again.
“They thought the nearly two months in jail before was enough to keep me quiet,” Nabeel said. “But they realized no, that did not keep me quiet. So maybe (they think) these three months will…”
Nabeel anticipated that the three months might stretch to a much longer incarceration. There were still three more pending cases against him, not to mention new cases that might still be brought.
But, he said, “I will not stop and I’m teaching people not to stop. If everybody will keep quiet after putting them in jail, then it’s a disaster. We should challenge that. We should be willing to pay the price for the struggle for the freedom that we fight for. And this is the price.”
The high price that human rights defenders in Bahrain pay is due to the interests that Western governments (especially the United States) have in the region, Nabeel said. For this reason, Western media is largely silent when it comes to Bahrain. If support for the pro-democracy struggle from the world — and from America – was offered, Nabeel said, it would be welcomed. But he was not expecting it, nor was he willing to bend over backwards to court it.
“We will count on our own people,” he said resolutely. “We will continue our struggle. We know it’s a long way, it could be very costly. But we are determined to continue our struggle for freedom and to bring democracy to this part of the world. We believe in our people, we believe in the commitment of our people. And that belief convinces me that we will win our battle for freedom.”
Typically, a verdict is appealed before it is implemented, Nabeel said. But because his case is a political one, he expected to be taken to the prison at any moment. A Ministry of Interior helicopter had been hovering over his house from the moment the sentence was announced, monitoring Nabeel’s movements as well as everyone else’s.
Nabeel excused himself to go and talk to his lawyer, and then went into a side room to try to complete some urgent work. The police came at approximately 1:30pm, dozens of them, surrounding the house from all sides before entering the premises. Clad in jeans and t-shirts with bright yellow police vests and black masks, they led Nabeel out of his home and towards the waiting jeeps.
“Baba, sumood!” his ten-year old daughter called after him, urging her father to remain steadfast, the catch-phrase of the Bahraini revolution.
“The dictators of this country think that by imprisoning me, it’s an end of an era and they’re going to silence the nation,” Nabeel said just before we ended our conversation. “But I think it’s the beginning of an era. The determination I’ve seen among people convinces me that our struggle will continue. The coming few days or few weeks will prove if what I am saying is right or if it is wrong.”