The State Department Thursday called on the Bahraini government to vacate charges against Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was sentenced to three years in prison for protesting against the Bahraini regime.
"We've long made clear that it's critical for all governments, including Bahrain, to respect freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. So we are deeply troubled by the sentencing today of Nabeel Rajab to three years in prison on charges of illegally gathering," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday. "We believe that all people have a fundamental freedom to participate in civil acts of peaceful disobedience, and we call on the government of Bahrain to take steps to build confidence across Bahraini society and to begin a really meaningful dialogue with the political opposition and civil society because actions like this sentencing today only serve to further divide Bahraini society."
Initially Nuland told reporters at Thursday's briefing that the U.S. would not "get into the middle" of the case now that Rajab has already been sentenced. But after being repeatedly pressed by reporters, she said that the U.S. administration wants the Bahrainis to scuttle the case against Rajab for this charge as well as a separate charge over a tweet he sent out criticizing the government.
"Well, obviously we think that this should be vacated," Nuland said.
Rajab is already serving a three-month sentence on charges of "libeling the citizens of the town of Muharraq over twitter" after he called for the Bahraini prime minister to resign and said he had lost support in that town.
Nuland also said the Bahrain regime has not completed the reforms it promised to implement after the report of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was released last year.
"Our message to the Kingdom of Bahrain throughout this has been to first complete the recommended reform steps that the Bahraini independent commission recommended. As you know, they got about halfway through and some of the rest of that implementation has not gone forward," she said.
Despite the State Department's condemnation of the sentence Thursday, leading Bahraini and American human rights activists don't think the Obama administration is doing enough to pressure the Bahraini regime on the issue and criticized the administration's previous silence on the issue.
"When Nabeel Rajab was arrested and imprisoned in May 2012, there was no response from the US administration. As the attacks against Nabeel Rajab escalated, the silent reaction from the US administration continued," BCHR said in a statement today. "The BCHR and GCHR do not imply that the United States of America is directly involved in the escalating attacks on human rights defenders, but the lack of pressure from the U.S. administration appears to be linked with the Bahraini government's willingness to escalate."
"It's long past time for the State Department and White House to speak out publicly on Rajab's unjust imprisonment," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Nice words like reform and dialogue are not enough when this kind of repression continues in plain view."
On Aug. 10, 17 members of Congress and 2 senators wrote a letter to the King of Bahrain asking him to release Najab and other political prisoners.
"We respectfully request that you use your authority to order Mr. Rajab's release under the universal principle that all citizens should have the right to peacefully express disagreement with their government," the lawmakers wrote.
In an interview last December with The Cable, Rajab said the U.S. government was failing to defend its values and promote the Arab Spring in Bahrain and other countries that the U.S. maintains close diplomatic and military relationships with.
"There is full support for revolutions in countries where [the U.S. government] has a problem with their leadership, but when it comes to allied dictators in the Gulf countries, they have a much softer position and that was very upsetting to many people in Bahrain and the Gulf region," he said. "This will not serve your long strategic interest, to strengthen and continue your relations with dictators and repressive regimes.... You should have taken a lesson from Tunisia and Egypt, but now you are repeating the same thing by ignoring all those people struggling for democracy and human rights.... Those dictators will not be there forever. Relationships should be maintained with people, not families."