DUBAI (Reuters) - A Bahraini human rights activist was sentenced to five years in prison on Wednesday for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s air strikes in Yemen and accusing Bahrain’s prison authorities of torture, his lawyer and fellow activists said.
The United States, which has a major naval base in the country, has expressed concern about the case of Nabeel Rajab, a leading figure in pro-democracy protests that swept Bahrain in 2011, who was already serving a two-year sentence over a news interview in which he said Bahrain tortured political prisoners.
The new convictions were for “insulting a neighbouring country” and “insulting national institutions” in comments posted on Twitter, activists said.
The Bahraini Embassy in London said the prosecution and Rajab’s defense team had had ample opportunity to present their cases.
“The trials for the cases were overseen by numerous observers, including representatives from foreign embassies and NGOs,” the embassy said in a statement.
“Bahrain continues to make it clear that both cases – or indeed any other criminal cases within Bahrain – do not relate to political views or political expression,” it added.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, an activist with the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), said Bahraini courts were barring citizens from criticizing the authorities.
“Instead of rewarding Nabeel Rajab for his brave and commendable exposure of human rights abuses and advocacy for peace, the authorities have chosen to punish the messenger.”
International rights groups denounced the ruling.
“They are basically trying to clamp down on every kind of dissent. They don’t seem to tolerate any criticism,” Hanan Salah, senior researcher on Bahrain for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters in Geneva.
Amnesty International’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa Heba Morayef, said: “It is absolutely outrageous that he (Rajab) be forced to spend a further five years in jail simply for daring to voice his opinions online.”
Bahrain has cracked down on perceived threats since Arab Spring protests in 2011 led mainly by majority Shi’ite Muslims, were quashed with help from Gulf Arab neighbors.
The Sunni Muslim-led monarchy has closed two main political groups - the Shi’ite Islamic al-Wefaq and the secular Waad -, revoked the citizenship of the top Shi’ite cleric and banned activists from travel and put some on trial.
Bahraini newspapers reported on Wednesday that parliament has passed a legislative amendment that would bar members of the two dissolved groups from competing in upcoming parliamentary election expected in October or in November.
Authorities accuse Iran, the region’s majority Shi’ite power, of being behind several bomb attacks on its security forces since 2011, something Iran denies.
Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a key naval base in the oil exporting region riven by animosity between Bahrain’s main ally, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
A U.S. embassy representative attended an earlier hearing for Rajab, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday, adding that Washington was “disappointed” his earlier verdict had been upheld.
“He’s a prominent human rights activist ... we continue to have conversations with the government of Bahrain about our very serious concerns about this,” Nauert said.
Rajab’s son Adam tweeted on Wednesday that, on hearing the verdict, his father laughed in the courtroom and flashed a peace sign.
The German government’s human rights commissioner Baerbel Kofler urged Bahrain to honor its constitution’s commitment to freedom of speech and the press.
“Every government must face up to the critiques of its citizens and engage with them with factual arguments,” she said.
Reporting by Noah Browning, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Angus MacSwan in London; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, Richard Balmforth, William Maclean