Nabeel Rajab is a human rights activist and opposition leader in Bahrain, the tiny gulf state nestled on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. When the Arab Spring sprung in 2011, Rajab, along with thousands of other protestors, took to the streets, calling peacefully for modest reforms. These included the release of prisoners, an end to the alleged persecution of Bahrain's majority Shia population, and meaningful democracy.
Unfortunately for them, and for Rajab, Bahrain is one of the West's favorite dictatorships. Unlike the unrest in Egypt and across the Arab world, the Bahraini uprising was met with indifference. While French and British fighter jets roared over Libya in support of the opposition movement there, and governments from London to Washington urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, the West continued to support the regime in Manama, Bahrain's capital.
Despite one group of British politicians calling the state of Bahrain one of the "least democratic in the world," historic ties, trade, military links, and a mutual dislike of Iran keeps Bahrain in the West's good books. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet is stationed there. The Bahraini royal family is best bros with its British counterparts.
And since the uprising began, things have only got worse. On a near nightly basis since 2011, protests, some of which have turned violent, are brutally put down by a militarized police force, which allegedly uses tear gas canisters as weapons, firing them directly at demonstrators. Prisoners are allegedly tortured systematically by police. Bahrain's answer to Prince William, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, has been personally accused of torture. Gradually, demands for reform among demonstrators have turned to cries for all-out revolution.
Throughout the three and a half years since those protests began, Rajab has been an unofficial leader of the protest movement. He's also paid the price. Building on his background in protests that started in the 1990s, he led numerous demonstrations in Manama and beyond, and has been arrested time and again, mostly for crimes relating to his Twitter account.
Accusations have ranged from "publicly insulting residents of a Sunni-dominated neighborhood for their ties to the ruling dynasty," and the snappy charge of "publicly vilifying the people… and questioning their patriotism with disgraceful expressions posted via social networking websites." Other accusations include joining an "illegal gathering" (which under Bahraini law can be group of five or more individuals), "disturbing public order," and "calling for and taking part in demonstrations."
All photos by Hussain Hubail, an award-winning Bahraini photographer currently imprisoned for five years, charged with "calling for illegal gatherings, inciting hatred against the regime, inciting people to ignore the law and misuse of social media."
All photos by Hussain Hubail
During his various stints in jail, Rajab claims to have been kept isolated for two years and to have been tortured. He says in jail he was stripped naked and forced to stand and sit 40-50 times in quick succession — a deliberate aggravation, he says, of a previous injury sustained by police beating. He's never called for any kind of violence and is considered a moderate by many.
Now, following a trip around Europe, he's been detained again. And once more, the arrest seems to have been prompted by his tweets. Specifically, there was one on September 28 that linked Bahrain's security forces to the Islamic State and other groups:
Three days after that tweet, Rajab was arrested by the Bahraini police force's "Cyber Crime Directorate." Right now he's locked up in Manama awaiting trial, which has been postponed until October 29. If convicted, he faces up to three years in jail. For a tweet.
Speaking to VICE News today, Rajab's lawyer Jalila al-Sayed was unsurprisingly indignant: "Nabeel was merely exercising his right to free expression when he tweeted about the tendency of some security and military officials to join terrorist groups like ISIS, which is a fact admitted even by government officials."
Husain Abdulla, executive director of the US-based pressure group Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain was similarly dismissive, telling VICE News that Nabeel's "continued detention, despite calls for his immediate release from the international community, makes a mockery of the Bahraini government's claims of respecting human rights and desiring reform."
All photos by Hussain Hubail
Abdulla in part blames the West, adding: "How can the West justify having an ally like Bahrain in the war against ISIS when the Bahraini government is willing to arrest a human rights defender like Nabeel simply because he criticized the very policies that supported that the creation of ISIS?" It's worth noting that despite this criticism, the US State Department on Monday asked Bahrain to drop the charges against Rajab.
Amnesty International has called the arrest a "serious blow to freedom of expression in Bahrain [that] entrenches growing attempts by the authorities to muzzle dissenters."
A few weeks before his most recent arrest, Rajab was in London where he spoke to our reporter Ben Anderson as part of an upcoming VICE News documentary on the country. Ben travelled undercover to meet Bahraini protestors in mid-2014, and the film will be released in late October.
Follow Alex Chitty on Twitter: @alexchitty