Bahrain has released one of the Gulf kingdom’s most prominent human rights activists after he completed a two-year jail sentence for his role in protests calling for democratic reforms.
Nabeel Rajab, who heads the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), was freed on Saturday after being found guilty in August 2012 of encouraging “illegal gatherings” tied to anti-government protests in the country. He was initially sentenced to three years imprisonment, but an appeals court later reduced his term by a year.
“I am happy to be with my friends and back with the human rights community but still saddened that there are still thousands of others who are still behind bars or outside the country,” Rajab told Al Jazeera. “I’m also disappointed that situation in Bahrain is much worse than two years ago when I first entered prison,” he said.
The rights activist is an opposition icon for the protest movement against the Arab monarchy’s rulers. Since 2011, the country’s majority Shia population has been demostrating for more rights and political freedoms.
Dialogue has to be a two way street between the people and the ruling family. And how can there be a credible dialogue if most of the true representatives of the people are behind bars?
Maryam al-Khawaja, acting head of BCHR while Rajab was in prison, told Al Jazeera that hundreds of people gathered near Rajab’s house to welcome his release.
“Of course we are glad now that Nabeel is among us again. Even though he was released, people should note that this was not a show of any goodwill on the government’s part as he was not pardoned or released early as he had served the full term of his sentence,” al-Khawaja said.
Upon his release, Rajab first visited his mother’s grave, who died while he was in detention. He then visited the family of Abdulaziz Alabbar, who recently died after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister and shotgun pellets when Bahraini security forces cracked down on a protest.
“This, of course, shows that Nabeel is back in the opposition movement as he is now tweeting and meeting people again,” al-Khawaja said.
In mid-2012, Rajab was sentenced to three months in jail for comments made on Twitter about Bahrain’s Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa al-Khalifa. His conviction was overturned on appeal while he served out his sentence for taking part in protests.
Recent national dialogues have failed to end the political standoff between government and opposition leaders. “Current efforts for a dialogue are not credible,” Rajab told Al Jazeera from his home on Sunday.
“Dialogue has to be a two way street between the people and the ruling family. How can there be a credible dialogue if most of the true representatives of the people are behind bars?” Rajab asked.
Many belonging to the opposition complain of political and economic discrimination, including being shut out from certain professions, a charge that the authorities deny.
Bahrain bans protests and gatherings not licensed by the government. The government quelled a 2011 opposition uprising with help from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states, but protests and small-scale clashes persist, while bomb attacks have increased since mid-2012.
Follow Ismaeel on Twitter: @ismaeelrn