SHAFAQNA – “I know [the Bahraini authorities] are serious about targeting me or silencing me. I guarantee that they will leave me alone if I keep quiet. But I know myself I will never keep quiet. I will keep speaking for those people, for those victims, who cannot speak about themselves.” – Nabeel Rajab
Bahraini authorities would rather you didn’t listen to Nabeel Rajab. He’s one of the country’s leading human rights activists, and a permanent thorn in the authorities’ side. Bahrain is one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to free speech and many other human rights – and Nabeel has spent his life trying to change this.
This is a man on the frontline of human rights and civil rights, fighting desperately for things that many of us take for granted. His story is one of defiance.
Talking about human rights was a crime when Nabeel was growing up in Bahrain in the 1960s and 1970s. After studying in India, he returned to Bahrain and in the 1980s took the great risk of founding the country’s first human rights organisation – in secret.
Nabeel’s group, the Bahrain Society for Human Rights, operated underground as such groups were not tolerated by Bahrain’s rulers. The group was eventually allowed to work openly in 2002, following governmental reforms.
Today, Nabeel is one of the most prominent human rights figures in the country. He is the President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, the Founding Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, and the Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights.
Pearl roundabout protests and crackdown
‘I did not believe that I would see three quarters of the population taking part in protests – in a population of 600,000 people. This isn’t something you have witnessed before in mankind.’
In early February 2011, amidst the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa – the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ – people took to the streets across Bahrain, demanding governmental reform. In the capital city of Manama, protesters came together around the Pearl Roundabout. Such protests had not been seen in the country’s recent history.
The authorities responded with brute force. Security forces undertook a night raid on the Pearl Roundabout, killing protesters and injuring many more. Others later died in custody after being tortured in the wake of the protests.
‘It is a black spot in our government’s history that people will never forget’
Political and human rights activists, teachers and doctors were amongst those arrested for leading or participating in the 2011 protests, or for speaking out about abuses in the crackdown afterwards. Five years on, many of them remain behind bars, some of them serving life sentences after being convicted based on ‘confessions’ they said were extracted through torture.
In stark contrast, there has been no accountability for the overwhelming majority of violations committed by the security forces. The few members of the forces who have been prosecuted – including those who shot protesters dead – have either been acquitted for ‘self-defence’ or given token sentences that do not reflect the crime committed.
Imprisoned for tweeting
‘The Bahraini authorities have expressed outrage at criticism of their human rights record, claiming they have introduced a series of reforms in recent years. However, these reforms amount to little more than empty gestures. Bahrain today remains a country where exercising freedom of speech is treated as a crime.’
Said Boumedouha, Amnesty’s Middle East Deputy Director
Social media has opened lots of opportunity for discussion around human rights in Bahrain.
Meanwhile, the Bahraini authorities seem to view the free speech opportunities offered by platforms like Facebook and Twitter as a threat – especially when they’re used by activists like Nabeel.
Last year, Nabeel was dealt a six-month prison sentence for tweets criticising the government. He was released after three months, after fears for his health.