Several thousand political opponents are languishing in prisons across Bahrain. Such sentences reflect the increasingly restrictive and dangerous environment faced by human rights activists.
On 11 February 2019, refugee footballer Hakeem Al Araibi walked free from Bangkok Remand Prison and was allowed to return to Australia, a country in which he had been afforded refugee status since 2017.
Despite the jubilation of this moment for football fans and refugee advocates across the globe, the situation for other Bahraini human rights defenders has not ended so positively.
At present, there are an estimated several thousand Bahraini political opponents languishing in prisons across Bahrain. These sentences – completely disproportionate and often almost exclusively vindictive in nature – reflect the increasingly constrictive and dangerous environment faced by human rights activists and those willing to express their opinions inside the country.
One of the most well-known cases is of prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab. Having served several prison sentences since 2011’s pro-democracy uprising, he is no stranger to the fundamentally unjust Bahrain judicial system.
On 31 December 2018, as the majority of the Western world were enjoying festive celebrations and getting ready to welcome in the new year, Nabeel received the devastating news that his most recent sentencing – a five-year term – was upheld by Bahrain's Court of Cassation.
Incarcerated for tweeting about the killing of civilians by the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition in Yemen, in addition to allegations of government-sanctioned torture in Bahrain’s prisons, he faces a bleak and tough future ahead.
Activists, monitoring organisations and United Nations bodies from all corners of the world have consistently questioned and criticised Nabeel’s charges. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a respected body of independent human rights experts, declared Nabeel’s detention to be not only unlawful but also fundamentally discriminatory and persecutory.
Such a harsh response by the Bahrain government to what is essentially an individual accessing a right to freedom of expression clearly demonstrates the lengths that Bahrain is willing to go to in order to silence dissent and opposition thought.
A similar desire by the government of Bahrain to quash political dissent also sits front and centre in the case of Hakeem Al Araibi. Before his December 2018 arrest in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on a spurious extradition request predicated on trumped up charges, Hakeem, too, spoke words that were not favourable towards the Bahrain government and its leaders.
His outspoken remarks against Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s royal family, is believed to have been the underlying reason for his detention in a Thai prison for nearly three months. His extradition request, despite overwhelming evidence that clearly showcased his absolute innocence, was only withdrawn following a viral public advocacy campaign that stretched all the way from Australia to FIFA headquarters in Zurich, and many countries in between.
For Bahrain, Hakeem represented a threat to the status quo and to the political security of the current ruling elite. With a failed democratic uprising still fresh in the minds of Bahrain’s leaders, criticism in any form is simply not acceptable.
Whether it be restrictions imposed upon civil society, an inability to challenge government policy, or simply the wish to highlight a severe violation of human rights, dissent is forbidden and is dealt with harshly.
For Hakeem’s case, in particular, the erroneous issuance of an Interpol Red Notice and a formal extradition request against a recognised refugee shows just how far the Bahrain government is willing to go in order to silence individuals that do not toe the party line.
As a free man and as a semi-professional footballer at Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale, for several years, Hakeem has been viewed as a potential symbol of resistance and strength against Bahrain’s ruling elite.
During his incarceration in Thai prison, Hakeem relayed his initial love and pride towards his country of birth. He noted that during his younger years he was ecstatic to pull on Bahrain’s national jersey as he represented his country on the international stage.
On the flipside, he also voiced his converse feelings of disappointment and sadness. Feelings that were awoken as a result of the way his country of birth was flagrantly ignoring and violating the human rights of its own citizens.
Instead of embarking upon a path towards progressiveness, inclusivity and reform, Bahrain has made an active decision to entrench policies of hostility and repression. Unfortunately, these attitudes will only draw further criticism towards the oil-rich state, as activists and political opposition figures will continue to be forced to flee in search of safety and security.
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