Bahrain accuses journalist of supporting terrorism

New York, January 6, 2016–Bahraini authorities should immediately release journalist Mahmoud al-Jaziri and drop all charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The terrorism charges were announced amid escalating sectarian tensions in Bahrain and other Gulf countries.

The Bahraini Interior Ministry today named Al-Jaziri, a reporter for the opposition daily Al-Wasat, as among those arrested for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, according to the official Bahrain News Agency (BNA). That announcement came amid a deepening diplomatic rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies, including Bahrain, after Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr on Saturday. It also followed years of official persecution–including the 2011 death in custody of a founding investor–of Al-Wasat staff.

“The Bahraini government has long sought to silence Al-Wasat,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. “We call on the authorities to release Mahmoud al-Jaziri immediately and drop all charges against him.”

Police arrested Al-Jaziri from his home on Nabih Saleh Island, south of the capital Manama, on the morning of December 28. He was allowed to call his brother later in the day to say he was being held for criminal investigation, local human rights groups and Al-Wasat reported. Al-Jaziri’s lawyer, Wafaa Marhon, told Al-Wasat on December 31 that prosecutors had not produced any evidence against her client.

But on January 4, two days after Al-Nimr’s execution, Al-Jaziri was referred to a special prosecutor for terrorist crimes, who charged him with supporting terrorism, inciting hatred of the regime, having contacts with a foreign country, and seeking to overthrow the regime by joining Al-Wafaa and the February 14 Youth Movement, which has organized protests since the 2011 uprising, according to news reports. The Interior Ministry statement carried by BNA today listed Al-Jaziri and three other recently arrested men as members of an armed wing of Al-Wafaa that was plotting bombings in cooperation with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah.

Mansoor Al-Jamri, editor-in-chief of Al-Wasat and CPJ’s 2011 International Press Freedom Awardee, told CPJ that Al-Jaziri denied all these charges and that he told prosecutors that his relationship with Al-Wafaa had never extended past proofreading the group’s public statements, and that he had stopped even that activity after he became a professional journalist in 2012. Al-Jamri said Al-Jaziri covers parliamentary news for Al-Wasat.

On the day of his arrest, Al-Jaziri had reported on a member of parliament’s proposal to deny housing to Bahrainis whose citizenship the government had revoked for their political activities. Over the course of 2013-2014, he had also written a series of opinion articles for Al-Wasat in which he blamed world and regional powers for what he called the “failures” of the 2011 uprisings collectively called the “Arab Spring,” criticized the lack of compromise in the region’s conflicts, and called for closer relationships between predominantly Sunni and Shiite countries in the region.

Last year, at least four bloggers were stripped of their Bahraini citizenship because of their critical writings, according to CPJ research. Bahrain was holding at least five journalists behind bars when CPJ conducted its annual census on December 1, 2015.