Over the holiday season, two prominent Gulf human rights activists will have their appeals heard. One is the Emirati Ahmed Mansoor jailed for 10 years, the other the Bahraini Nabeel Rajab jailed for five. I know both men and am proud to call them friends. The fact that their appeals will be heard at a time when the attention of the West will be otherwise engaged in festive celebrations is no coincidence. Rather, it is a cynical ploy.
The authorities in both countries would much prefer that the outcome of the appeals is largely ignored. Both myself and the many human rights organisations that follow their cases fear that the appeals will be dismissed. The justice systems in both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are highly politicised and have no real independence from the ruling families.
Let me tell you a little bit about Ahmed Mansoor and Nabeel Rajab and the extraordinary courage they and their families have shown over years of harassment, arrests and imprisonment.
Although they have campaigned always peacefully for free media, freedom of expression and association and for democratic reform, they have been treated as security threats by their governments when, in fact, they are great patriots.
Ahmed Mansoor, the father of four young children, was the winner of the prestigious 2015 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. He once joked with me that he was “the last man talking” in the UAE and the region about human rights violations. He pretty much was. Almost every other activist in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is in jail, in exile or silenced by the fear of what the authorities will do not only to them but also to their loved ones.
Ahmed and his family have paid a heavy price for his human rights advocacy.
In early 2011, after signing a petition calling for democratic and economic reforms, he was subjected to an online smear campaign which, he told me, was orchestrated by the state security apparatus. “Twitter, Facebook, text messages, television and radio spread false information about me to create an environment of hatred,” he said. It was a campaign that included many death threats.
In April of that year, he was arrested, held in jail for nearly eight months and convicted, together with three other human rights proponents, of “insulting the rulers” in a trial that was widely seen as grossly unfair.
On November 27, 2011, Ahmed was sentenced to three years in jail. The next day, thanks largely to an international outcry, he and the others sentenced with him were pardoned.
By the time he was released, he had already lost his job as a senior engineer in a telecommunications firm. Subsequently, the government refused to issue him a Certificate of Good Conduct, citing his conviction. Without the certificate, he couldn’t be employed in either the private or public sectors. His passport was confiscated and he was banned from travel, a ban which the authorities refused to lift so he could receive the Martin Ennals Award in person in Geneva.
Then, in March of 2017, he was seized and taken to an unknown place. His family had no idea where he was and had virtually no contact with him. He was denied access to a lawyer of his choosing. Nearly a year after he was taken, he was brought to court, sentenced to 10 years in jail and fined one million dirham ($272,300) after being convicted of “insulting the ‘status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols’ including its leaders” and of “seeking to damage the relationship of the UAE with its neighbours by publishing false reports and information on social media.”
Nabeel Rajab, whom I have known since 2007, was arrested in June 2016 and held on remand for more than a year and a half, much of that time in solitary confinement. In February of this year, he was brought to trial, swiftly found guilty and handed the five-year term. He was convicted of “disseminating false rumours in time of war”, for “offending a foreign country” and for “insulting a statutory body” for tweets critical of the war in Yemen and for the mistreatment of detainees in Bahrain’s Jau prison.
Nabeel had already spent several years in and out of jail for his persistent refusal to cease his peaceful criticism of the extensive human rights abuses of the Bahraini regime. Like Ahmed Mansoor, he understood that to continue the journey for freedom and democratic reform would inevitably mean more jail time. He had a small bag packed by the door, waiting either for the midnight raid to take him away or for the morning phone call instructing him to present himself at the office of the public prosecutor.
Like Ahmed’s family, Nabeel’s family – his brave wife Sumaya and their children – have suffered greatly. His son Adam has courageously carried on the struggle to keep his father’s name in the public domain.
In all the time I have known Nabeel, he has never once doubted that his cause was rightful, nor that the justice must be obtained through peaceful means. He fears that constant harassment and ongoing repression by the state will lead only to more violence. As he told me once:
“There is no place for peaceful protest. All marches are banned and you can’t talk on Twitter. There is no tolerance for any criticism. The government is filling the jails with human rights activists and opposition politicians, all of us advocates for peaceful change.”
He also once told me that the authorities had offered him his release with only one condition: that he ceases and desists from criticising the regime. He told me those were not terms he could ever contemplate accepting.
And I remember asking Ahmed why he continued on his lonely fight. He said: “The only way to counter repression is by revealing it. And yes there is always that possibility that I will go back to jail. But if [activists] do not talk, who will?”
Ahmed Mansoor’s appeal is scheduled for December 30, Nabeel Rajab’s the next day. Spare a thought and shout out support for these two courageous patriots and for their families.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.