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Released From Jail, Bahrain's Freedom Fighter Rides Again

Released in late May after two years in prison, Nabeel Rajab has taken his cause to foreign capitals. But will the West challenge the oil-rich nation's human rights record.

Nabeel Rajab in white
Nabeel Rajab in white
Hélène Sallon

PARIS — It's only been a month since he was released from a Bahrain prison, and Nabeel Rajab is already right back in the fray.

Rajab had been convicted of provocation and participation in illegal protests, which had begun in Bahrain in the middle of February 2011 in the capital of Manama, as the Arab Spring's pro-democracy movements swept through the region.

A longtime activist, and singular leader of the Feb. 14 Uprising, the director of the Bahrain Center of the Human Rights (BCHR) is busy remobilizing his army. From Beirut to Geneva, Copenhagen and Paris, where Le Monde was able to meet him on June 28, in between the 60 year old's visits with several Bahraini activists forced into exile.

“It is right there where the human rights movement in Bahrain ended,” he says with a sigh. Beyond those who fled are some 3,000 activists, or simply protesters, still in jail back in Bahrain.

But since his release, every step comes with the same determination as three years ago, recalling the 150 deaths in the crackdown on protesters, mainly among the country's 600,000 Shia citizens.

“There is no Shia family that doesn’t have someone in prison or in exile,” Rajab said.

His own activism has made him a frequent target of authorities. Already arrested several times during 2011, he was targeted by defamation campaign run by the government media. He was sentenced to three months in prison for the first time on July 9, 2012 for posting a tweet critical of the regime.

He told us about his two years in cell. Isolated, he was separated from other political prisoners. A back injury that came after a 2006 beating by police got worse in prison, but he clarifies that he "was not tortured" during his recent incarceration.

[rebelmouse-image 27088073 alt="""" original_size="480x360" expand=1]

Beating marks on Rajab's back — Photo: Bahrain Center for Human Rights

Others were not as lucky. In the cell several meters away from him, lived Abdel Hadi Al-Khawaja, cofounder of the Bahrain Center of Human Rights, sentenced to life imprisonment by military court in June 2011. He was the target of physical, psychological and sexual torture, according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

“Thousands have been tortured, and some even to death. They did nothing to me because they knew that I had great influence on people and I’ve got many contacts with human rights organizations,” he added.

On Twitter, the prisoner 048, as he calls himself, is followed by more than 230,000 people. "That’s one third of the kingdom’s population!” Amnesty International put him on their “Prisoners of conscience” list, and the United Nations singled out his jailing as “arbitrary detention.”

Foreign pressure

By the time he was set free, he found himself in a wounded country. “The number of prisoners has doubled. The majority is sentenced for their part in demonstrations or for criticizing the king on Twitter. They are regarded as terrorists,” he says.

None of the recommendations made by the Bahrain Commission of Independent Investigation created by King Hamad has been implemented. In fact, the Commission has violated its constitution during the insurrection in 2011 by its excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture. Instead, an anti-terrorist law has been voted on August 2013 that includes new limits on freedom of speech and assembly.

[rebelmouse-image 27088074 alt="""" original_size="751x1024" expand=1]

Political cartoon featuring Rajab — Author: Carlos Latuff

Rajab says the past three years was a systematic marginalization of the Shia population, conducted by the Sunni monarchy that has been in power since the 18th century. “In the courthouse, all the judges were Sunnis, same for the prison. It was like a Nazi camp,” he says.

For years, he has battled the economic and social discrimination against his community, especially against the king's policy to naturalize foreign Sunnis. “They brought in people from Pakistan, from Jordan, from Yemen and Syria. And they employ Sunni tribes for their police and army," Rajab says.

He adds that the Shia don’t have access to most of the jobs in public sector, while new neighborhoods and cities are all built for the Sunni, as education grows more and more segregated.

“It’s apartheid," he says.

This marginalization still leads to daily protests in Shia villages. “No one talks about it because the media is run by the government. People are killed, but you'd never find out,” he said. But activists like him still continue their fight in the country. “I know it is dangerous, but fear won’t stop me.”

The only thing that worries him is the thought of being separated from his children. “The king wants to set us against the Sunnis, but we don’t have any problem with them. We only have problems with the ruling class,” Rajab said.

For him, only foreign pressures could help end the repression, though on that front he is not holding his breath. "When it comes to Bahrain," he says, "economic interests with the Gulf countries keep France and other European governments silent."

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