New Year Not Likely Happy for Leading Gulf Rights Defenders
by Joe Stork
It’s been a grim 2018 for partisans of free expression in the Gulf. The gruesome murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi by henchmen of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman rightly commanded headlines. More bad news looms, though. In these last days of 2018, Nabeel Rajab and Ahmed Mansoor, the leading human rights figures in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates respectively, expect final appeals court rulings on the long prison terms they are serving for speaking out against their highly abusive authoritarian regimes.
Ahmed Mansoor was literally the last activist standing (“the last man talking,” he liked to say) in the UAE when security forces raided his home in March 2017 and held him in an unknown location for more than a year with no access to a lawyer. (The handful of UAE defense lawyers who formerly took the cases of political dissidents are now all in jail or exile.) Mansoor had previously faced physical assaults, death threats, and a sophisticated spyware attack as a consequence of his outspoken promotion of democracy and human rights.
The UAE has engaged rafts of U.S. and UK public relations firms to promote an image of enlightened autocracy. In November, the country sponsored a two-day World Tolerance Summit of government officials, diplomats and academics to “celebrate diversity amongst people from all walks of life, regardless of varying political views . . . .” So long, it seems, as those views contain no reference to the country’s fierce intolerance of peaceful political dissent. In May 2018, the Federal Supreme Court’s State Security Chamber sentenced Mansoor to 10 years in prison for insulting “the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” and publishing “false information” on social media “that harm national unity and social harmony and damage the country’s reputation.” On December 30, the Federal Supreme Court will announce its decision in Ahmed Mansoor’s appeal.
Nabeel Rajab’s hearing is one day after Mansoor’s, on December 31. Rajab’s lawyers are expecting that the Cassation Court—the country’s court of final appeal—will rule on his appeal of his February 2018 High Criminal Court conviction for criticizing Bahrain’s participation in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen (“insulting a neighboring country”) and allegations of torture in Bahrain’s main prison (“offending a statutory body”). In June, the High Criminal Court of Appeal confirmed his five-year sentence in that case.
Rajab, a founder and head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who has been in jail since mid-June 2016, is currently in the last days of a two-year sentence in a similar but separate case, on charges of “publishing and broadcasting fake news that undermines the prestige of the state.” The offending “news,” conveyed in a TV interview, comprised well-documented facts: that the government bars journalists and rights researchers from visiting Bahrain, that the government recruits foreigners (“mercenaries”) into its security forces, that security forces subject detainees to torture, and that the judiciary lacks independence. As if to confirm the last item, the Court of Cassation in January 2018 upheld this conviction and two-year sentence.
Rajab’s supporters note that the December 31 hearing comes as the two-year sentence expires at the end of December, and fear that the government is determined to keep him behind bars despite its expiry. Over the last year-plus the government has shuttered the country’s one independent newspaper (Al Wasat) and the two leading opposition political groups, Al Wefaq (Shi`a Islamist) and Wa`ad (secular leftist). There is some fear that the court might even increase Rajab’s pending five-year sentence. This is what happened after Al Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman was acquitted on bogus charges of spying for Qatar: the state appealed and the Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal and sentenced Salman to life in prison.
One can find news stories and editorials in the U.S. media about the persecution of rights defenders when the country is China or Venezuela, Iran or Syria, but rarely when the jailer is Bahrain and never when it’s the UAE. Full disclosure: I know both Ahmed and Nabeel, and worked closely with them both when I worked for Human Rights Watch and they were not in jail. What a simple accounting of their convictions and prison sentences fails to convey is the trauma and suffering—of these two individuals, much of the time in solitary confinement and sometimes deteriorating health, but also of their spouses and young children. What we see with Ahmed Mansoor and Nabeel Rajab is not justice or rule of law, but purely punitive state behavior directed at individuals who refuse to be silenced in the face of the abusive ruling families of Bahrain and the UAE.
Joe Stork was until recently the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. He serves on the Advisory Board of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.