Bahrain must release activist after ‘hollow’ appeal verdict

Bahrain must release a prominent human rights defender whose conviction for involvement in anti-government protests has been upheld by an appeal court, Amnesty International said today. Nabeel Rajab, the President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, had his three-year jail sentence for participating in and calling for “illegal gatherings” reduced to two years by the court. His lawyers will launch an appeal before a higher court against the conviction, which relates to protests in Bahrain between February and March 2012.“The appeal court’s gesture to reduce Nabeel Rajab’s sentence by one year is completely hollow given that he shouldn’t be serving any time in prison in the first place,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.“Nabeel has done nothing wrong, except peacefully express his views. A two-year prison sentence, just like a three-year sentence, is an insult and an injustice that can only be rectified by releasing him.”  The activist’s conviction was upheld a day after the King of Bahrain spoke effusively of the kingdom’s respect for human rights.The King reportedly said in a speech that freedom of expression and peaceful gathering in Bahrain were guaranteed for all people.Despite such words, the Bahraini government imposed a ban an all protests on 30 October and scores of people have been arrested in recent months for their participation in gatherings. Human rights defenders have been repeatedly harassed and some jailed for carrying out their work or expressing their views.Another Bahraini activist, Zainab al Khawaja, was arrested on Sunday after entering a medical complex to interview an injured protester and is currently in custody pending investigation. In a separate development, she was sentenced to one month in prison yesterday, also for participating in an “illegal gathering”.“The Bahraini government has been, on the one hand, trumpeting respect for human rights while, on the other, continually jailing human rights defenders for peacefully expressing their opinions,” said Philip Luther.“The authorities must match their actions to their discourse and immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience held in Bahraini prisons.”In July, Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to three months in prison for libel after posting a tweet critical of the Prime Minister, Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa.  His three-year sentence in connection with the protests followed a month later.Several foreign governments have also expressed concerns about freedom of expression and assembly in Bahrain.Most recently, during an international gathering in Manama at the weekend, US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said: “The [Bahraini] government… should drop charges against all persons accused of offences involving non-violent political expression and freedom of assembly. Many of these convictions appear to be based, at least in part, on the defendants’ criticisms of government actions and policies.”