Nabeel Rajab: Why Did the U.S. State Department Drag Its Feet?

August 21, 2012

Nabeel Rajab
Nabeel Rajab
Nabeel Rajab
Nabeel Rajab

On August 16th, Bahraini political activist Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to three years in jail for his peaceful role in protests critical of Bahrain’s monarchy.  He had already been in prison since July 9th, when he was convicted of libel after sending a tweet that criticized Bahrain’s Prime Minister.

But despite all of this, the US State Department did not publicly call on its military ally to release Nabeel Rajab until after his three year sentence had already been handed down.

Why did the US State Department wait so long to come to Nabeel Rajab’s defense?

There were plenty of missed opportunities along the way. One such moment was on August 1st, when Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner testified (see pg 16) at a congressional hearing focused on Bahrain.  In his written testimony (pg 4), Assistant Secretary Posner called on the Government of Bahrain to “drop charges against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression and freedom of assembly.”

But in response to a question from Congressman Jim McGovern regarding Nabeel Rajab, Assistant Secretary Posner was more opaque.  He stated that Rajab’s case was “a bit more complicated on its facts,” that “there needs to be a due process of law,” and that “the case needs to be heard expeditiously.”

The US State Department should have been unequivocal.  Assistant Secretary Posner should have stated that Rajab should not be facing charges for protesting the government or sitting in prison for sending a a tweet.

Indeed, Nabeel Rajab is an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.  As stated in our latest Urgent Action:

Despite the [Bahraini] authorities’ claims to the contrary, abuses continue to be committed against those who oppose the Al Khalifa family’s rule. The government is refusing to release scores of prisoners who are incarcerated because they called for meaningful political reforms, and is failing to address the Shi’a majority’s deeply seated sense of discrimination and political marginalization, which has exacerbated sectarian divisions in the country.  Nabeel Rajab’s latest conviction and sentence starkly contradict the facade of reform showcased by the Bahraini authorities.

Assistant Secretary Posner’s comments obscured Rajab’s situation in other ways as well.  In response to a question by Congressman Keith Ellison, Mr. Posner described Rajab as in “detention” and that “the case has been, as I said, adjourned until September.”  This was, of course, factually incorrect.  Rajab had already been convicted and imprisoned – not just detained – after tweeting criticism of the Prime Minister.

Fortunately, Members of Congress did not limit themselves in the way that State Department officials have.  In the days before Rajab’s three year prison sentence was given, 19 Members of Congress publicly called on the King of Bahrain to release Rajab.  The effort was led by the above mentioned Rep. Keith Ellison, with the support of Rep. Jim McGovern and others.

Still, the US State Department waited until after Rajab’s latest convictions before issuing a public statement calling for his release.  The critical moment was at a US State Department press briefing that was reported on by Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy.  Rogin writes:

Initially [State Department Spokesperson Victoria] Nuland told reporters at Thursday’s briefing that the U.S. would not “get into the middle” of the case now that Rajab has already been sentenced. But after being repeatedly pressed by reporters, she said that the U.S. administration wants the Bahrainis to scuttle the case against Rajab for this charge as well as a separate charge over a tweet he sent out criticizing the government.

It is worth looking at the actual transcript of the briefing to get a sense of just how hard reporters had to push before the State Department spokesperson was willing to specifically call for Rajab’s release:

QUESTION: — do you have anything to say about the three-year prison sentence that was handed down to the human rights advocate Nabeel Rajab for a tweet that was critical of the Prime Minister?

MS. NULAND: Well, we have two issues now. We have the issue of the tweet where the – my understanding is that that – the decision on his appeal has now been postponed, but we have a three-year sentencing today for his participation in what the Bahrainis called illegal gatherings.

So with regard to the sentencing today on the gathering, as you know, we’ve long made clear that it’s critical for all governments, including Bahrain, to respect freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, so we are deeply troubled by the sentencing today of Nabeel Rajab to three years in prison on charges of illegally gathering. We believe that all people have a fundamental freedom to participate in civil acts of peaceful disobedience, and we call on the Government of Bahrain to take steps to build confidence across Bahraini society and to begin a really meaningful dialogue with the political opposition and civil society, because actions like this sentencing today only serve to further divide Bahraini society.

The above statement is encouraging, but watch the resistance exhibited by Ms. Nuland when it comes to actually calling on the Government of Bahrain — a US military ally — to release Rajab:

QUESTION: Do you want him released?

MS. NULAND: We have said that we think that this is an inappropriate case to begin with.

QUESTION: Right. But are you telling the Bahrainis that you think he should be released?

MS. NULAND: I don’t think that we are now that the sentence has come down. We’re not getting in the middle of that. We’ve said from the beginning that we thought that this case shouldn’t have gone forward.

QUESTION: Well, I understand that. But it is appropriate while the case is still pending for you to be calling for him to be released, but once —

MS. NULAND: This case he’s – this case he has now been sentenced —

QUESTION: I understand that.

MS. NULAND: — and the other case hasn’t – hasn’t come forward.

QUESTION: But since you think that it’s inappropriate and shouldn’t have —

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, we think —

QUESTION: — you certainly want him freed?

MS. NULAND: Obviously, we think that this should be vacated.

It is disappointing that it took so long for a State Department official to clearly and unequivocally say that Nabeel Rajab’s conviction should be “vacated” – in essence, that Nabeel Rajab should be freed from prison.  Later, the State Department issued a formal statement calling for Rajab’s sentence to be “reconsidered .. without delay.”  But US diplomats should have publicly called for Rajab’s release while the charges were still being considered – not once a terrible verdict had been delivered.

All of this is important not just for Nabeel Rajab, but for the “Bahrain 13” as well.  13 Bahraini opposition leaders are currently in prison on sentences ranging from five years to life.  All 13 are prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

The Bahrain 13 will learn the final verdict on their appeals on Tuesday, September 4th.  Now is the time for the US State Department to clearly and unequivocally call for their release.  While Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner and others have criticized the Government of Bahrain for its many violations of human rights, the US government needs to go much further and start putting public pressure on Bahraini officials.

In the words of Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, our Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director in London:

The international community can no longer be under the illusion that Bahrain is on the path of reform when such blatant ruthless tactics are being used to suppress dissenting voices. Bahrain’s international partners need to make this loud and clear to the Bahraini authorities.

In other words, it is time for the Obama Administration to start publicly saying what needs to be said.