GENEVA – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, today called on the Government of Bahrain to immediately release prominent Bahraini women’s rights and social media activist Zainab Al-Khawaja, and urged them to drop all charges for having exercised her right to free expression.

Ms. Zainab Al-Khawaja was arrested along with her 15-month old son on 14 March, in connection to the charges she was facing for tearing a picture of Bahrain’s King and ‘insulting a public servant’.

“The mere fact that a view is considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties against Bahraini activists,” said the independent expert mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to protect and support human rights defenders worldwide. “Deprivation of liberty on the sole ground of having exercised the right to freedom of opinion and expression and having defended human rights through peaceful means may be considered arbitrary.”

Ms. Zainab is detained purely for her critical views against government authorities,” he said. “Such criticism is not only fully legitimate according to Bahrain’s obligations under human rights law. It is absolutely essential to the free and public debate necessary for a vibrant civil society.”

I remain extremely concerned about laws, such articles 214 and 216 of the penal code, that criminalize offending the King, Bahrain’s flag or the national emblem, as well as the National Assembly or other State institutions,” Mr. Forst said. “The broad scope of article 165 of the Bahraini Constitution is used to silence a wide range of critical speech, considered to be ‘hostile’ towards the Government.”

I call on the Bahraini authorities to respect and guarantee the right to freedom of opinion and expression and ensure an enabling environment for human rights defenders to carry out their activities without fear of persecution,” he noted.

The ongoing harassment and criminalization of activists in Bahrain should stop,” the human rights expert stressed. “I urge the authorities to cease such persecution and immediately drop all the charges against Zainab Al-Khawaja.”

On a number of occasions the expert has expressed his grave concerns to the Government concerning the crackdown against Bahraini human rights defenders, including Nabeel Rajab, Maytham Al-Salman, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and many others.

Mr. Forst and other UN experts have repeatedly urged the authorities to review Bahraini laws and practices to be compliant with Bahrain’s obligations under human rights law, especially the freedoms of expression and association and the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of liberty.

The expert’s statement has been endorsed by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye.