LONDON — A court in Bahrain sentenced a prominent democracy advocate on Wednesday to five years in prison for tweets about abuses in prisons and the Saudi-led war in Yemen, continuing the crackdown that crushed the Arab Spring uprising there seven years ago.
The sentencing of the advocate, Nabeel Rajab, is the latest step in a long crackdown on dissent in Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom that is home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Backed by rulers in neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim royal family has used tanks, riot police officers, sweeping arrests and tight censorship to thwart demands for democracy among the Shiite Muslim majority, and the resulting conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions around the region. The repression has presented Washington with one of the most awkward conflicts between its professions of support for human rights and its military commitments in the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Rajab, 53, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is a leader of the pro-democracy movement that came to life in 2011, during the Arab Spring uprisings across the region. He was sentenced to three years in jail the next year, on charges of inciting protests against the government, and he has spent much of the intervening time in and out of prison on a series of charges related to his criticism of the monarchy. He is already serving a two-year sentence handed down in July for comments he made in television interviews, and faces more charges related to an Op-Ed published in The New York Times in 2016, “Letter From a Bahraini Jail.”
In it, Mr. Rajab recounted a recent meeting with John Kerry, then the secretary of state “I would like to ask Mr. Kerry now: Is this the kind of ally America wants?” he wrote. “The kind that punishes its people for thinking, that prevents its citizens from exercising their basic rights?”
Mr. Rajab was sentenced on Wednesday for statements he posted on Twitter in 2015. He was charged with “insulting national institutions” for accusing the authorities of torture at Jaw Prison, and sharing a report by Human Rights Watch that detailed conditions at the prison. He was charged with “insulting a neighboring country” for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s war against an Iranian-allied faction in Yemen, and he was accused of spreading false or malicious news during wartime because he faulted Bahrain for its participation in the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen.
As those charges were pending, Mr. Rajab reiterated his criticisms last May in another opinion column in The New York Times appealing to President Trump on the eve of his trip to Riyadh, the Saudi capital. “It fills me with shame that my country, Bahrain, is bombing Yemen, with United States support,” Mr. Rajab wrote, adding, “What I have endured is a small fraction of what the people of Yemen have suffered, largely because of the military intervention of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and their allies.”
United Nations agencies say that the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen has contributed to a humanitarian disaster, including thousands of indiscriminate civilian casualties as well as widespread famine and disease.A recent report by a United Nations panel concluded that the two sides had reached a stalemate neither could win, and that a Saudi-led blockade of the country has “had the effect of using the threat of starvation as an instrument of war.”
Supporters of the Saudi-led campaign argue that it is necessary to prevent Iran from establishing a beachhead on the Arabian Peninsula through its allies in Yemen, the Houthis. Supporters of Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim monarchy similarly argue that the Shiite-dominated opposition is in league with Shiite-led Iran. Tehran has used its state-owned media to encourage unrest in Bahrain, and Shiite militants in Bahrain have carried out violent attacks on security forces.
Mr. Trump has embraced Saudi Arabia as a close ally, vowed to push back against Iranian influence around the region, and tempered even the muted criticism of Bahrain that occurred under the Obama administration.
“Our countries have a wonderful relationship together,” Mr. Trump said during an appearance in Riyadh last spring with the king of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. “There has been a little strain, but there won’t be strain with this administration.”
In September, the Trump administration approved a $3.8 billion deal for Lockheed Martin to sell Bahrain more than a dozen new F-16 fighter jets, as well as upgrades to its existing fleet and other military equipment. Mr. Trump dropped requirements imposed under President Barack Obama for improved human rights before any arms sales. And, after a meeting with the crown prince of Bahrain in late November, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that the kingdom had agreed to spend as much as $9 billion on unspecified “commercial deals,” including the F-16s.
Mr. Rajab’s sentence on Wednesday was “a slap in the face to justice,” Heba Morayef, the Middle East director at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “It is absolutely outrageous that he be forced to spend a further five years in jail simply for daring to voice his opinions online.”
Aziza Salman, a representative of the government of Bahrain, said in an email that the charges against Mr. Rajab “relate to specific articles of Bahrain’s penal code and did not, in any way, relate to any political views he may hold.”
“Bahrain’s commitment to protecting the security of the nation and its citizens is absolute; Nabeel Rajab was found guilty of undermining that security,” she added.
Asked on Tuesday about Mr. Rajab’s impending sentencing, a State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said the administration was “very disappointed” that an earlier conviction had been upheld. “We continue to have conversations with the government of Bahrain about our very serious concerns,” she added.