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April 04, 2013

Nabeel Rajab Calls from Jail

Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and one of his country’s leading activists, is serving a two-year prison sentence for tweeting about protests. I spoke to him a few minutes ago on the phone.

He sounded strong, and his spirit seemed as strong as ever. He’d left me a phone message a few days ago, so it was good to be able to talk properly, although we laughed at the absurdity of passengers on my train hearing my side of the conversation. He can’t talk about anything political or the line gets cut.

He told me how bored he is. “I spend most days just sitting between the four walls – I’m not allowed any books except religious books,” he said. “I’ve been reading a lot of religion…I’m allowed to talk on the phone twice a week for 15 minutes and that’s what breaks the boredom, I look forward to it.”

Nabeel is many things, including great company. He’s funny, witty, approachable. We last spoke just over a year ago, the last time I was allowed into Bahrain. We sat in his house and talked about the government crackdown, how he felt that he would sooner or later be imprisoned, the amazing passion and determination of younger Bahrainis insisting on their rights, why the U.S. government has been so muted in speaking out against human rights abuses in Bahrain, and dozens of other issues.

I once was walking along the street with him in the Bilad al Qadeem area when a small group of people recognized him and came over to talk. We were chatting when suddenly the riot police appeared and—without warning—fired rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at us. A young woman we were talking to was shot through the hand by a piece of shrapnel. Nabeel bundled us into a car, and we took her to an underground treatment center.

“Please say hi to everyone,” he said just now. “My family visits me and tells me what’s going on so I’m following everything you’re all doing for Bahrain. I want to thank you all, I don’t know how I can ever return that effort but I appreciate it so much. I am strong and my spirit is high. You’re all doing great work and thank you.”