On the day of Hayyat’s arrest, the state-run Bahrain News Agency reported that the Ministry of Interior had ordered the arrest of a man for defamatory statements about a religious sect in Bahrain. The agency, which did not the name the person arrested, reported that he was referred to the public prosecutor under article 309 of the penal code, which outlaws speech that ridicules a recognized religious sect under penalty of up to a year in prison or a fine not exceeding 100 dinar (approximately US$265).
The arrest came after Hayyat published a series of tweets during the observance of Ashura, when Shia Muslims mourn the death of Hussein in battle against the Sunni Muslim Caliph Yazid Ibn Muawiya in 680 AD. The observance is often a tense time in Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy rules over a majority Shia population.
In the tweets on October 7, 2016, Hayyat called on God to curse Yazid and leaders of his army who fought against Hussein. In one tweet, he wrote, “If today we’ve come to disagreement over the crimes of Yazid, then tomorrow we’ll disagree about Satan and it will be criminalized to curse him too.”
A criminal court sentenced Hayyat to three months in prison on November 29, 2016, according to news reports.
Four prominent Bahraini human rights groups pointed to a different reason for Hayyat’s arrest however. On October 1, 2016, Hayyat posted on his Facebook page a widely shared public letter to the Minister of Interior over his arrest and torture in 2011. In the letter, he writes “Every day I witness dignity and humanity crushed in your prisons.” He continues, “I write this letter knowing that it could make me lose my freedom and my story may once again be the story of a detainee, but my faith in the judgment and power of God is greater than my fear.”
The letter refers to Hayyat’s April 2011 arrest after Bahraini state television identified him as one of the “traitors” participating in a protest for greater press freedom. He was held for nearly three months. After his release, he claimed he was repeatedly beaten by officers, including while tied in the “shrimp” position with his hands and feet hogtied behind his back as he lay on his stomach. Hayyat accused one officer of pulling down his pants in the courtyard of the police station, while onlookers watched as Hayyat pleaded to not be raped. Hayyat said the officer pulled up Hayyat’s pants, made Hayyat face the wall, and began to grope him while pressing his body into Hayyat’s backside.
CPJ considers article 309 of Bahrain’s penal code, like many other provisions criminalizing speech in the country, overly broad and ambiguous, allowing the government to arbitrarily apply the law to silence critical and independent voices.
Before his 2011 arrest, Hayyat worked as a sports commentator. He more recently produced videos on YouTube on social issues and current affairs. In August 2016, he created the SnapHayyat YouTube channel, where he posts Snapchat-style videos of his commentary on politics and current affairs.