UN panel calls on Bahrain to release activist Nabeel Rajab

A special United Nations panel is urging Bahrain to immediately release imprisoned activist Nabeel Rajab, describing him as the victim of government-sponsored "persecution" for his political views in the island kingdom.

The statement by the U.N.'s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention comes as Rajab is serving a five-year prison sentence for tweets he sent, a case widely criticized internationally as the kingdom's government continues a crackdown on dissent. He faces further time in prison on other charges similarly denounced abroad.

"Mr. Rajab's political views and convictions are clearly at the center of the present case and that the authorities have displayed an attitude towards him that can only be characterized as discriminatory," the panel said. "He has been the target of persecution, including deprivation of liberty, for many years and there is no other explanation for this except that he is exercising his right to express such views and convictions."

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and a British naval base, disputed the U.N. panel's findings. It described Rajab's court hearings as "independent, transparent and attended by numerous international observers."

"As in all countries, there is a distinct difference between legitimate criticism of government and attempts to incite public disorder," the government said in a statement, without elaborating.

Rajab has faced years of imprisonment and a government campaign coordinated against him for backing the island's 2011 Arab Spring protests. Then, the island's Shiite majority and others demanded more political freedoms from the kingdom's ruling Sunni family, the Al Khalifa.

Bahrain ultimately put down the demonstrations, relying on reinforcements from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Rajab was sentenced in August 2012 to three years in prison for allegedly fomenting clashes between police and protesters, a case similarly criticized by the U.N. panel. At the time, he was already serving a three-month sentence for posting anti-government comments on Twitter. He was released in May 2014 after serving two years, but was detained again over his comments on Twitter.

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa pardoned Rajab in July 2015 over concerns about his health after the activist served some three months in prison.

But Rajab was again arrested in June 2016 over his tweets alleging abuse at Bahrain's Jaw prison and criticizing civilian casualties in the Yemen war waged by a Saudi-led coalition, of which Bahrain is a member. Prosecutors also investigated the 53-year-old activist for letters he wrote while imprisoned that were later published by newspapers Le Monde and The New York Times.

Bahrain's constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of speech. However, Rajab was prosecuted under laws making it illegal to offend a foreign country, spread rumors at wartime or "insult" a government agency.

The U.N. panel criticized those laws being as "vague and overly broad."

"Denials of a universally accepted human right to freedom of opinion and expression should not be meekly condoned by a domestic court," the panel said.

The panel's appeal is unlikely to sway the rulers of Bahrain, an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.

The United States previously publicly pushed back against Bahrain on human rights matters, using its influence as the island's defense guarantor with over 7,000 U.S. troops attached to a sprawling base in Manama that hosts the 5th Fleet.

However, President Donald Trump's administration has approved a multibillion-dollar sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without the human rights conditions imposed by the State Department under President Barack Obama. Trump himself told also King Hamad in May 2017 "there won't be strain with this administration."

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap . His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz .