DUBAI (Reuters) - A prominent Bahraini protest leader, Nabeel Rajab, was sentenced to three months in prison for insulting some Bahrainis in a tweet criticizing the prime minister, Rajab’s lawyer and the state news agency said on Monday.
Rajab has been a central figure in organizing protests during 16 months of unrest in the Gulf Arab state. Majority Shi’ite Muslims have spearheaded calls for democratic reforms to limit the powers of the ruling Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family.
Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), spent three weeks in jail in June under investigation after suggesting in a tweet that residents of the Muharraq district had made a recent show of support for Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman only for financial gain.
“A group of people from Muharraq lodged a complaint against the defendant for slandering them with insulting expressions (via publication),” the Bahrain News Agency said, citing chief prosecutor Nayef Yusuf Mahmoud. It said the utterances had cast doubt on their patriotism.
Rajab’s lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi said the complaint was raised by a group of around 50 people including retired army and security officers. He said the tweet came with a series against the prime minister, who has been in his post for 41 years.
An official from the government’s Information Affairs Authority said the complaint was filed by two prominent residents after they were approached by the Muharraq community over what they felt were defamatory and insulting accusations.
After the court’s ruling, police removed Rajab from his home in the Bani Jamra district west of Manama, according to Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda, a colleague from the BCHR who said he was inside the residence at the time.
Jishi said Rajab would lodge an appeal and that the judge had said the time Rajab had already spent in jail would count towards the sentence.
“Every day there are a thousand people insulting a thousand people; this isn’t logical. Normally the charge of insult leads to just a fine. So for me it’s a surprise,” said Jishi.
The prime minister, who is the uncle of King Hamad bin Isa, has been a lightning rod for the opposition, who have demanded his ouster. But many Sunnis who fear empowering Shi’ite Islamists in the opposition see him as a crucial patron.
In response to persistent unrest, Bahrain has increased parliament’s powers of scrutiny over ministers and says it is reforming policing to conform with international human rights standards. It accuses protesters of rioting and wounding police.
Washington has urged Bahraini leaders to pursue a meaningful dialogue with the opposition to end the unrest and hold officials accountable for rights violations uncovered in an investigation led by international legal experts.
The Arab uprisings have brought about the ousters of autocratic rulers in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya. Bahrain - a U.S. ally that hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet - imposed martial law to try to crush the uprising last year.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Sami Aboudi, Ralph Boulton and Mark Heinrich