Where in the world is Nabeel Rajab? It’s the question Bahrainis and human rights advocates are asking after the sudden disappearance of the key opposition leader this week. Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, has been in prison since August 2012 for his role in organizing the mass democracy protests in 2011 that drew more than 100,000 people to the streets demanding an end to 230 years of rule by Western-backed monarchies.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights reports that Rajab called his wife from prison Tuesday, telling her that he had just witnessed the torture of young political prisoners at the hands of prison guards at Jaw Prison. He reportedly raised his voice, demanding the guards stop beating prisoners. The guards left after they realized they were being watched.
Rajab was sentenced to three years in prison on charges that included “involvement in illegal practices and inciting gatherings and calling for unauthorized marches through social networking sites” and “participation in an illegal assembly.” Like a community organizer in the U.S., Rajab was using nonviolent methods to advocate for democracy and human rights in his country.
His problems intensified Tuesday after Rajab asked his wife to request that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visit him in prison so he can give them his testimony of the beatings he had witnessed. Later that evening, Rajab’s wife received a phone call informing her that her husband was reportedly removed from his cell that night by prison guards and was not returned. His whereabouts remain unknown.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) both expressed deep concern that Rajab had been moved to solitary confinement where he would not be able to communicate with his family and supporters.
“The BCHR and GCHR are very concerned that due to what Nabeel Rajab witnessed he is being silenced by being moved to solitary confinement. There is a serious concern of ill-treatment if he is moved to solitary confinement where he loses communication with his family and lawyer,” the rights groups co-authored in a recent statement.
Rajab remains an important figure in the pro-democracy movement that swept through Bahrain in 2011 during the broader Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East.
Roughly 100,000 took to the streets in defiance of the al-Khalifa government Feb. 22, 2011. It was a major protest in a country with just 500,000 native-born citizens. For Bahrainis, calling for an end to monarchical rule would be a break from 230 years of tradition.
Opposition groups describe the police response as brutal and unrelenting in the weeks to follow, resulting in the deaths of at least 90 protesters and the arrests of 2,929 people, 700 of whom remain in prison, including Rajab, who was targeted by the regime because of his prominent role in organizing protests.
The protests have not ended, but have significantly declined in recent months largely due to an increase in U.S. and Saudi Arabian support for the ruling regime.
Roughly 1,000 Saudi troops and 500 police officers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) entered Bahrain in March 2011 to crack down on the protests. The Bahraini monarchy also was bolstered by the Obama administration’s decision to resume $53 million worth of military equipment and support to the Gulf country in September 2011, including bunker-buster missiles and armored vehicles.