The Cable

State Department calls on Bahrain to release jailed human rights activist

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."

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/GettyImages

The Cable

State Department denies pressuring Brits to go in and get Julian Assange

The war of words between Britain and Ecuador escalated Thursday over the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but the State Department said the United States is staying out of it.

Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday as the WikiLeaks founder continues to hole up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he has been since June avoiding extradition to Sweden for questioning related to allegations of sexual assault. Earlier this week, the British government affirmed its right to go into the embassy and get Assange, provoking a harsh diplomatic response from the Ecuadoran government.

"The United Kingdom does not recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters Thursday. "There is no ... threat here to storm the embassy. We are talking about an Act of Parliament in this country which stresses that it must be used in full conformity with international law."

Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said that he fears if Assange is sent to Sweden he could then be sent on to the United States, where he would not be able to receive a fair trial. Patino called Assange an enemy of the "corrupt" media and U.S. "imperialism."

In Washington, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday that the U.S. government takes no position on the extradition of Assange to Sweden and that the United States is not involved in the issue at the diplomatic level.

"This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes," said Nuland. "It is an issue among the countries involved and we're not planning to interject ourselves."

Nor has the United States gotten involved on the issue of Assange's current location or where he might end up, Nuland said. She declined to say if the United States supported the British position that it does not recognize the principle of political asylum in the first place.

Reporters at the briefing pointed out that the U.S. has invoked the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in the past, which states, "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enterthem, except with the consent of the head of the mission." But Nuland declined to get into that issue, saying only that the Brits were invoking British law in this case.

"Well, if you're asking me for a global legal answer to the question. I'll have to take it and consult 4,000 lawyers," Nuland said. "With regard to the decision that the Brits are making or the statement that they made, our understanding was that they were leaning on British law in the assertions that they made with regard to future plans, not on international law."

Pressed on whether or not the United States has been involved in the Assange extradition in any way, Nuland said not as far as she knows. She added that she doesn't think the Justice Department was planning on charging him with anything anyway.

"My information is that we have not involved ourselves in this," she said. "But with regard to the charge that the U.S. was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely."

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