The imprisonment of Nabeel Rajab is a sobering reminder of the struggle in Bahrain

The Bahraini human rights activist has been jailed for three years for taking part in "illegal gatherings".

Much was made of the importance of Twitter during the Arab Spring. Few people made better use of it than Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. The authorities in his home country are well aware of the power he wields on social media: he is currently serving a three-month sentence after calling for the prime minister to step down on Twitter. Today, he was sentenced to a further three years in jail for attending an “illegal demonstration”.

I interviewed Rajab earlier this year when he visited London, and he explained that Twitter is invaluable when all other media is controlled by the state. He proudly told me that he was the number one Tweeter in Bahrain, and number four in the Arab world, and that in the preceding six months, he had been interrogated three times – all of them regarding his Twitter account. His sentencing today is a sobering reminder of how far tyrannical regimes will go to suppress freedom of speech.

Amnesty International has described it as a “dark day for justice in Bahrain”, saying that Rajab is a prisoner of conscience. Indeed, it is difficult to see his incredibly punitive sentencing in any other light. As one of the country's most long-standing and prominent human rights activists, often seen in the western media, the regime clearly wants him out of the way.

Yet Rajab’s sentencing also throws light on the continued struggle in Bahrain. So far, more than 70 people have been killed in 18 months of protests, which have seen a brutal crackdown against protesters and troops being sent in from neighbouring Saudi Arabia. When we spoke in April, Rajab expressed frustration that the western media were largely ignoring the situation in Bahrain.

Relatives present in the court said that Rajab shouted “three years or 30, you cannot stop me” as his sentence was read out in court. It shows characteristic resilience. When I asked him whether he feared for his safety, he answered:

“I think I've passed that stage. My family used to get worried at the beginning but they know the size of the goal we are fighting for. My life is in danger, but I have my obligations and my business in order so that tomorrow if they kill me, there won’t be any problems for my family.”

With his lawyers readying an appeal, let’s hope he regains his freedom – though it looks like there is minimal hope of a fair trial.

 

A Bahraini Shiite Muslim youth holds a picture of prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab during a demonstration. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR