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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

In Bahrain Anti-Government Speech is a Crime

Nickie Phillips

The continued detention of human rights activist Nabeel Rajab in Bahrain reminds crimcast that in many countries, speaking out against the government remains criminalized. According to Front Line Defenders, freedom of expression is actively criminalized not only in Bahrain, but also in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Russia, China, Azerbaijan, and Belarus, among many other nations. Rajab, as President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, made a trip to Lebanon last month where he met with other regional human rights leaders. From there, he allegedly tweeted an insult of a "statutory body" of Bahrain and was arrested on May 7, 2012, upon his return. Originally, his detention on the government defamation charge was slated for a week, but that period has since been extended due to his participation in anti-government protests last January.

Rajab has been one of many opposition leaders in Bahrain who have been peacefully protesting the lack of inclusion of the Shi'a majority underclass in the political and economic life of the island nation located off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. The country is a constitutional monarchy whose Sunni royal family has grown increasingly out of touch with, and unresponsive to, the frustrations of Shi'a and the historical persistence of discrimination against them. Inspired by the Arab Spring, in February 2011, the government opposition gathered around the Pearl Monument in Manama to call for reform. After the monument became a symbol of reform, the government destroyed it. Since then, during government crackdowns that have included Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces, at least 70 people have been killed and there have been hundreds of casualties.

The situation in Bahrain is a stalemate with no end to human rights abuses in sight despite credible reporting-- and even an independent human rights commission that documented police torture against opposition leaders. Bahrain is a U.S. ally and site of the headquarter of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet; the U.S. has simply not provided any more than empty lip service to compel Bahrain to shape up its act. Criminalizing peaceful activists with a laudable human rights agenda is a profound violation of basic human rights standards and inconsistent with the U.S.'s self-proclaimed mission to export democracy. Rather than support a democratic grassroots movement in Bahrain whose complaints are credible and well-documented, the U.S. stands idly by, dubiously afraid of Iran and loathe to lose jeopardizing its naval stronghold in the Gulf.

Rajab is just the latest in a long line of pro-democracy Bahraini public figures whose speech has gotten them in criminal trouble. In June 2011, Bahraini poet Ayat al-Ghermezi was arrested for incitement after reciting an original poem publicly. The poem includes the lines “We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery/We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice/Don't you hear their cries, don't you hear their screams?" She addressed the poem to King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifah and the Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifah. In addition, blogger Mahmood Al-Yousif, a Sunni who advocates political non-sectarianism, was arrested on March 30, 2011, for writing about the Shi’a opposition in a way perceived by the government as sympathetic to them.

The Bahrain government has recently hired John Timoney, former Miami Police Chief, and John Yates, Former Assistant Commissioner of Britain’s Metropolitan Police, to act as police consultants to control anti-government protesters. It is lamentable that two elite police professionals from democratic countries would throw material support to the problematic operations of a criminal justice system with so many contemporary and on-going human rights violations, a system which is now primarily organized to defend a corrupt state,

Meanwhile, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, serving a life sentence for participating in anti-government protests, has been on hunger strike for over 90 days. His thinning, deteriorating body is unfortunately a perfect metaphor for a country which once had so much potential, yet is currently withering away into the dark recesses of routine government brutality-- but you can't say all this in Bahrain unless you're ready to serve hard time.