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.