Global Freedom of Expression

The Case of Nabeel Rajab

Closed Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    February 21, 2018
  • Outcome
    Decision Outcome (Disposition/Ruling), Imprisonment
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    Bahrain, Middle East and North Africa
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law
  • Themes
    Content Regulation / Censorship
  • Tags
    Political speech

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

On February 21, 2018 Bahrain’s Criminal Court sentenced political activist Nabeel Rajab to five years in prison for tweets and retweets in 2015 denouncing Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen and for criticizing prison abuse in his country. Rajab is already serving a two-year sentence handed down in July 2017 for comments he made in televised interviews and faces charges in respect of articles by him published in Le Monde and the New York Times. The travel ban he has been under since November 2014 also remains in place. Rajab is one of the most high-profile democracy campaigners in the Arab world and has served several prison sentences since setting up the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights in 2002.

This is the latest decision in Bahrain’s heightened crackdown on dissent which has seen increasing instances of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders, journalists, and active members of civil society. Bahrain joined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the courts continue to engage in progressive rhetoric despite pursuing action totally at odds with democratic principles.

Global FoE could not identify official legal and government records on the case and information on the case was derived from secondary sources. Global FoE notes that media outlets may not provide complete information about this case. Additional information regarding legal matters will be updated as an official source becomes available.


On February 22, 2016 Nabel Rajab went on trial before the High Criminal Court in Bahrain for posting comments on twitter in 2015 regarding the war in Yemen and torture in Jau Prison. During the hearing, the court played video footage, submitted by a Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) officer, who had previously testified that the footage showed Rajab admitting to being the author of the tweets in question.

The charges against Nabeel Rajab include “insulting a statutory body” (Article 216 of the Bahraini Criminal Code) for referring to the Ministry of Interior in tweets he posted denouncing the torture of detainees at Jau Prison and “disseminating false rumours in time of war” (Article 133 of the Bahraini Criminal Code) in relation to tweets he published about the Saudi-Arabia led coalition air strikes in Yemen.

Following a subsequent hearing December 28, 2016, Manama’s Fifth High Criminal Court ordered Nabeel Rajab’s release. However, the authorities refused to release him and instead he was immediately re-arrested and taken into custody in relation to an investigation into TV interviews he gave in 2015 and 2016. The Public Prosecution subsequently charged him with “spreading false news in media interviews,” the trial for which began on January 23, 2017 and concluded July 10, 2017 when Nabeel Rajab was convicted and given a two-year sentence.

On February 21 2017, Nabeel Rajab appeared before the Lower Criminal Court for the third hearing in the tweets case. Requests by his lawyers for him to be released were denied. The trial was consistently postponed throughout 2017. It was eventually heard on February 21, 2018.

Nabeel Rajab is also facing separate charges in relation to two pieces written in his name in the New York Times in September 2016 and Le Monde in December 2016. The travel ban he has been under since November 2014 also remains in place.

Nabeel Rajab is one of the most high-profile democracy campaigners in the Arab world. He took a leading role in Bahrain’s Shia-led mass demonstrations in 2011 which asked for reforms in the Sunni-ruled kingdom. He was jailed in May 2012 on charges of organizing and participating in illegal protests and released two years later. Since then he has faced a barrage of charges primarily for tweets allegedly insulting national institutions contrary to Article 216 of the Penal Code.


Decision Overview

Rajab’s charges in the tweets case fall under Articles 216 and 133 of the Bahraini Penal Code.  Under Article 216, anyone found guilty of insulting the government, its agencies, or its departments will be fined or imprisoned and, unlike much of the Code which provides specific sentences for each crime, the length of sentence for this crime is left to the discretion of the judge. Article 133 imposes a punishment of imprisonment for a period of up to 10 years on anyone who deliberately announces in false or malicious news, statements or rumors in wartime.

The judicial reasoning is currently unavailable but further information will be added if an official source becomes available.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that in sentencing Rajab to two years in prison in late 2012, the court had stated that it respects international standards for political freedoms. It further indicated that its decision did not violate the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Bahrain joined pursuant to Bahrain’s Law #56 of 2006.

On January 20, 2015, another court sentenced Rajab to six months imprisonment for insulting the Ministry of Interior in a tweet the previous year, in which he had suggested that security institutions in Bahrain had served as what he called an “ideological incubator” for jihadists. This ruling is inconsistent with the court statements made in the 2012 decision as is his arrest on April 2, 2015 and imprisonment in the current case for “spreading tendentious rumors” concerning the treatment of detainees in Bahraini prisons and for “insulting statutory bodies” of Bahrain’s government.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Contracts Expression

The decision contracts expression by imposing a prison sentence for critical comments about the government’s foreign and domestic policies, specifically Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen and prison abuse in Bahrain.

Bahrain joined the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) pursuant to Bahrain’s Law #56 of 2006 but the Arab Spring in 2011 saw it change swiftly from a country with little political diversity and vocal dissent to one in which activists calling for democracy have been increasingly silenced. The courts have engaged in progressive rhetoric while pursuing action totally at odds with democratic principles. The prosecutions of Rajab demonstrate the point – for example, when sentencing him to two years in prison in late 2012, the court stated that it respected international standards for political freedoms and indicated that the decision did not violate the ICCPR while it relied and continues to rely on novel and inconsistent interpretations of the Bahraini Penal Code to violate that right to freedom.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • Bahr., Criminal Penal Code, Article 216
  • Bahr., Criminal Penal Code, Article 133

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

This case did not set a binding or persuasive precedent either within or outside its jurisdiction. The significance of this case is undetermined at this point in time.

Official Case Documents

Reports, Analysis, and News Articles:

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