June 9, 2020 / 1:31 PM / a month ago

Bahrain releases leading rights activist Nabeel Rajab: lawyer

DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain has released leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab after a court agreed to pass an alternative sentence to the jail term he is currently serving, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

Bahraini prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab and his daughter pose for a photo, after he was released, at his house in Budaiya in Manama, Bahrain June 9, 2020. REUTERS/Hamad l Mohammed

Rajab, an outspoken critic of the government who played a prominent role in pro-democracy protests in 2011, is serving a five-year sentence over social media posts criticizing Saudi Arabia’s air strikes in Yemen.

Bahrain introduced new legislation in 2018 allowing its courts to convert jail terms into non-custodial sentences. Hundreds of prisoners have been released but Rajab is the only major opposition and activist figure that has been freed so far.

“The court has finally agreed to grant Nabeel Rajab an alternative sentence,” his lawyer Mohamed Al Jishi told Reuters.

It was not immediately clear what the alternative punishment would be for Rajab but authorities said non-custodial sentences include community service, electronic monitoring and repairing criminal damage.

Rajab was sentenced in 2018 over posts criticizing Saudi raids in Yemen and accusing authorities of torture. He was convicted of “spreading false news and rumours in time of war”, “insulting foreign countries” and “insulting publicly the interior ministry”, a court filing by his lawyers has showed.

In his mid-50s, Rajab has been in jail since 2016 and served another two-year term for torture allegations he made in a news interview. He also faces a number of other cases.

Bahrain, led by a Sunni Muslim royal family, has been clamping down on dissent since 2011 when it quashed Arab Spring-like protests, led mainly by Shi’ites, with Saudi help.

Home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the Gulf island kingdom prosecuted and revoked the citizenship of hundreds of people in mass trials and banned leading opposition groups. Most of the main Shi’ite opposition figures and human rights activists are imprisoned or have fled the country.

Human rights groups have also criticized Bahrain over prison conditions including overcrowding and lack of medical care, especially since a coronavirus outbreak in Bahrain.

“Rajab’s release must be extended to all political leaders and opposition activists ... many of whom are elderly and suffer chronic preexisting health conditions putting them at great risk from COVID-19,” said Husain Abdulla, Director at Washington-based Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.

The government denies repressing the opposition and says it is protecting national security from groups it calls terrorists backed by Iran.

Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Alex Richardson, William Maclean

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