Nabeel Rajab is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a member of the advisory committee for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.
I am writing this from prison. The government of Bahrain, my country, jailed me for criticizing its involvement in the brutal, bloody war in Yemen. I face up to 15 years imprisonment on that charge, in addition to the two-year sentence I am already serving in a separate case.
This week, the Bahraini government is holding an international forum called the Manama Dialogue, a public relations exercise designed, in part, to whitewash its dismal human rights record. But don’t expect any criticism from Washington. Two weeks ago, I watched from my cell as President Trump gleefully announced the sale of $9 billion worth of arms to Bahrain, including finalizing the purchase of American F-16 jets. At a time when Bahrain faces serious economic challenges partly due to the slump in oil prices, this deal comes as a great comfort to human rights abusers. It is a political signal from Washington that the Bahraini regime can continue to commit atrocities at home and abroad and still receive American support. Under President Barack Obama, a sale of American F-16s to the Bahraini government was made conditional upon the improvement of the regime’s human rights record. Now, the Bahraini government knows it can do what it wants with impunity. It will continue to receive U.S. support no matter how bloody its hands become.
In May, I read Trump’s statement to the king of Bahrain during his visit to Riyadh, which included the words “there won’t be strain with this administration.” It was no coincidence that days later, Bahraini police used the deadliest force we have seen in decades, killing five protesters. That was part of a larger pattern. Over the past year, opposition members have been executed, civil society crushed and our human rights completely sidelined. The regime has stepped up its reprisals against human rights activists. The Bahraini government has even imprisoned the family members of my friend and colleague Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, who is beyond their reach in the United Kingdom.
The two-year prison sentence I am serving is related to the charge of “spreading fake news.” This is because I told the press truthfully that journalists and human rights organizations cannot enter Bahrain, a key U.S. ally and participant in Saudi Arabia’s disastrous blockade and bombing of Yemen. That war, which has caused untold suffering and death, has been fueled by the Trump administration’s unconditional support for both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The United States has also been supplying both governments with the weaponry to prosecute this vicious conflict.
Many people in my region hate U.S. foreign policy, because they see Washington as the key supporter of dictatorial regimes that repress their own people. My own visits to the United States have deeply impressed me with the values of justice, freedom and equality that lie at the heart of American democracy. But there is an absolute absence of those values when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. If Trump wants to “make America great again,” he could do so by orienting his policies toward the world on the same democratic and humanitarian values on which the United States was founded.
The United States must take the long view rather than focusing on short-term gains. It is in the interest of the United States — and all people everywhere — that we attain stable, democratic governments rooted in justice and respect for human dignity. This applies to the states of the Gulf as much as it does anywhere else.
In May, I saw Trump dancing and waving his sword in the Saudi kingdom, which also uses swords to behead people who demand democracy, and whose leaders humiliate women and believe that they do not have the same rights as men. Clearly, Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was the precursor to the multibillion-dollar business deals that are now putting so many lives at risk in my region.
I know I risk more years in prison for writing this. Three years ago, I was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for tweeting criticism of Bahrain for ignoring the rise of the Islamic State and related extremism. If the government of Bahrain has its way, I may never be released. From the moment I entered Jaw prison last month, I have been entirely isolated, barred from seeing visitors and separated from the rest of the prisoners. I am classified as a “threat” to the prison population, and for that I am kept in a segregated wing of the building otherwise reserved for Islamic State-supporting extremists. I hope that this is a coincidence, but I fear that it is not.
The risk of speaking out is huge. Yet when I think of the starvation in Yemen caused by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the lost potential of the thousands who have died, the imprisonment of so many who have dared to speak out — and all of this with Trump’s apparent backing — I know it is a risk worth taking. It is true that I face the prospect of spending an additional decade and a half in prison because I have chosen to take a stand. Yet my suffering is nothing compared with what Yemeni children are going through every day as they face bombing, starvation and fear. I continue to stand with the civilians and children of Yemen and to call upon the Saudis and Bahrainis to end the war immediately.
Those of us who hold up a mirror to tyranny will not be silenced.