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Reem Khalifa: Court overturns twitter conviction for Nabeel Rajab but he still faces three years in prison for allegedly encouraging protesters to clash with security forces

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

On Thursday, a Bahraini judge acquitted Nabil Rajab, the human rights activist, of charges having arisen out of Tweets he made criticizing the regime. But he remains in jail awaiting a review of his case, after being sentenced to three years on other charges. And the opposition’s struggle in Bahrain intensifies, including the killing of a 16-year-old boy by Bahraini authorities on Friday.

Now joining us from Bahrain is Reem Khalifa. She’s a independent Bahraini journalist. She works for international newswires. Thanks very much for joining us, Reem.


JAY: So, first of all, let’s talk about Nabil Rajab. This acquittal today, is that any indication that the regime is starting to feel external pressure? And does this mean anything for the review of his trial, that his sentence is coming up in a few days?

KHALIFA: Well, you know, international human rights organizations welcomed this appeal verdict, but many of them say it’s not really the end of the issue of the human rights defender Nabil Rajab. Why is that is because—it’s because he has another case which—facing three-years, you know, sentence that was announced a week ago, and he’s going for another repeal on September 10, according to his lawyer.

Surprisingly, today in the courtroom, Nabil Rajab shouted loudly, saying that he was, you know, abused in the prison when the verdict of—the last week verdict announced and he was kept in a dark room, and he was just saying that he was very much humiliated physically and mentally and were tortured, and he was not allowed to call his family and to explain, and if he will talk to them and say what’s happening to them, the prison authority will cut off the line. That’s what Nabil claimed inside the courtroom before the judge reads the verdict of the Twitter case, which was accusing him for—or convicting him for three months.

JAY: Now, after months and months of opposition struggle and very, very little coming from the U.S. in terms of critiquing the Bahraini government for its repression, last week at the sentencing of Rajab, the State Department actually did issue a statement calling on his release and saying human rights should not be denied in Bahrain and so on. I mean, a lot of people think that’s very little coming very late. But do you think this is having any effect on the regime?

KHALIFA: Well, it seemed that—I mean, things are still going on. The trials is not just for the human rights defenders, even for the doctors and other cases. I mean, some of them had—you know, we heard, like, some of the people were released, but after having one year, you know, in prison, and some still facing charges. And, I mean, the situation is not as easy as how the press statements coming out from the authorities, when they say things going ahead when it comes to the recommendations, whether for the fact-finding committee or for the recommendations that they are expected to be discussed at the Human Rights Council at the UN in Geneva on September 20 for Bahrain regarding to all these issues related.

Yes, I mean, the observers and the people in Bahrain and outside Bahrain—I mean, they outside Bahrain, obviously, they see Bahrain’s very small and it could be a victim for regional conflict or interest between two giant countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is how they see, and plus the things that—happening in Syria right now.

But in the same time, the things that—happening on the ground in Bahrain, in this small island, and which is an ally for the United States, still, I mean, too many things happening. I mean, for the past 18 months, Bahrainis did not really enjoy their religious celebrations. For example, after Ramadan, every Eid celebration, they will have a death, and especially among these teen Bahrainis when clashes starts between the police and the protesters on different occasions or any attack that happen.

JAY: Reem, what happened on Friday? A 16-year-old boy was killed.

KHALIFA: Well, the minister of interior statement saying that he was among these, you know, vandalists youth who’s trying to attack a police car in central of Muharraq Island—this island is northeast the capital Manama, and it is a mixed background, Shia and Sunni, in this island. And, as well, they were saying they were carrying cocktail molotovs, throwing it over the police car, and they wear mask. But in the other side, you see there were witnesses and also NGOs and also the human rights defenders, and the opposition as well, they were saying he was not among these people. And he was beaten up and also get hurt by bird shotgun pellets, which is an issue in Bahrain, and also by the—after the tear gas issue as well. He was—the cause of death was admitted by the public prosecutor’s statement after two days, and pictures were circulated in the social media before burying the body. It was very clear, showing the pellets all over his body.

I have to say that this is the first case after—since April, since the Formula One race, the car race in Bahrain. We had a case similar to the case of Husam Haddad, who is 16 years old. I mean, the number, according of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, it’s increasing since February 14, 2011, up to August now, 2012. According to them, the number of the deaths since the crisis happened, it’s reaching now 108. And this is what came out from Bahrain Human Rights Society.

JAY: Now, as you reported on The Real News before, these clashes are almost daily in Bahrain, although you wouldn’t know it if you watched Western mainstream news. Now, just to end up, go back to the State Department critiquing the sentence of Rajad. Is there any indication that there’s any real pressure coming from the U.S.? Clearly, if anyone can pressure Bahrain it would be the Americans, given that’s where the Fifth Fleet are. These are just, you know, some words and not very many. Is there any sense there’s any real pressure coming from the Americans? Or is this a little bit of a fig leaf?

KHALIFA: I think it’s not just the American. The international community, this is how we read the statements as we are following and updating the story when it comes to a human rights defender like Nabil Rajab. It’s the concept of how a person could be convicted for posting a Tweet. This is how they are questioning.

And as well, the international community, including the State Department, this is how we see in their statement saying that people should have the right for a peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression and, you know, having the tool of Twitter and using it widely in the Arab world since the—. I mean, since the Arab Spring started in the Arab region, it is a way that people, because they’re living under very much frustration—so the social media was a way to express their ideas and to pass news and criticize things that they don’t like.

And Nabil Rajab is one of these human rights defenders in Bahrain and in the Arab world that using it widely to spread what’s going on inside Bahrain. And he defended many, many people, not just in Bahrain with different backgrounds, not necessarily Bahrainis, but even Arabs, non-Arabs, Muslims, non-Muslims. So he is well known internationally, worldwide. He’s not just a human rights activist for Bahrain or for the Gulf region.

JAY: What I’m asking is: is there any indication that the U.S. will do more than just issue a statement which can be easily ignored? I mean, the amount of leverage the Americans would have with the Bahraini regime is quite profound, one would think. Are they using any of their cards, or just issuing a public statement?

KHALIFA: Well, what we see: they are using more public statements. They send the representative to the court. This is how we observe as journalists what they’re doing. They’re observing the situation. But their observation to the Bahraini situation, it differ if we compare it to the Syrian, for example, I mean, probably because Bahrain is a small country in the region. And it might be—as I explain earlier, according to the observers, it could be a small state, and it could be also a victim for interest between countries in the region which have also interest to dominate certain things.

And the issue of Bahrain never been a sectarian issue, as it’s described in many ways in some of the media, in the Arab media. But it is very much, you know, a demand that people calling for it, which is a universal demands, which could be seen very clear in any part of the world.

So that’s why, I mean, Bahrainis, if you go and talk to the protesters or ordinary Bahraini, or even on the opposition, they’ll tell you that the Americans are not doing enough. And that’s why we started to have in the past months that some of anti-American slogans coming out, and they put the statements of the American officials when it comes between Syria and Bahrain. We see as an observers that it could be—I mean, even if they are using all these public statements, but it’s still the issue of addressing what happened in Bahrain. It is a big issue what it will be, especially when it comes to the Gulf region.

It is not true—this is what the observers saying—that the Gulf region is far away any wind of change. That’s not true. The Gulf region is part of the Arab world, which facing right now too many things. And, obviously, the youth in the Gulf or in any part of the Arab world, what they are demanding, it will be the same thing. It will be dignity and human rights, which is—all of them are universal principles. And that’s why people in Bahrain expecting that hopefully with the discussion that it will be raised at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 20.

There will be—I have to add one thing. The officials, the American officials keep insisting that Bahrain implemented the BICI recommendations, and they keep saying they went ahead with too many things.

What we see is, basically, the situation is accelerating and things are not being really pleasant in different ways. It might be there is a small change in some of the way, but dealing with the situation as a whole and seeing if there is a dialog could be implemented or reconciliation in this island, it could be really far, far away. It’s just because we don’t see a strong initiative coming out from the government when it comes that they need to show a bit of compromise, and this compromise might be a high price for the government. But as I mentioned, the way how we report, the way how we see the things going on in Bahrain and in relation to the things happening in the Arab world, it is time that you need to change kind of your way and policy. Otherwise, things will be really getting bad and we might face another thing that might be not expected within the Bahraini society, like what the Arab countries facing right now.

JAY: Right. Thanks very much for joining us, Reem. And just to remind everyone, Bahrain is a very safe home to the Americans’ Fifth Fleet. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.

KHALIFA: Thank you.


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Reem Khalifa writes on Bahraini matters for the Associated Press and weekly op-eds for Qatari Al Raya and Bahraini Al Wasat on Middle East and North Africa affairs.