The International Press Institute (IPI) today urged Bahrain to free prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab after prosecutors said a charge that he spread “false news” harming the state’s image stemmed from his claim that journalists and international NGOs were banned from entering Bahrain.

The disclosure, the first time that Bahrain’s government identified the basis for the charge, came on Jan. 23 during the first hearing in the case against Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and co-founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).

Neither Rajab, who reportedly was not notified of the hearing in advance, nor his attorney were present and the case was adjourned to Feb. 8. The case is related to statements Rajab made in interviews with news media in 2015 and 2016.

The research and investigation collective Bahrain Watch has documented numerous instances of international NGOs, journalists and academics being denied entry to Bahrain since 2011.

Another hearing took place on Jan. 23 in a separate case charging Rajab with “insulting a statutory body”, “insulting a neighbouring country” and “disseminating false rumours in time of war”. That case, over tweets he allegedly posted in 2015 alleging torture in a Bahraini prison and criticising human rights abuses by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, was adjourned Feb. 21.

Rajab has been behind bars since June 2016 and reportedly has suffered a deterioration in health due to poor and unhygienic conditions, and periods of solitary confinement. He has served multiple prison sentences since founding the BCHR in 2002 and currently faces a third case on charges of “broadcasting false news through a foreign newspaper” and spreading “malicious rumours”.

That case is related to the New York Times’ September 2016 publication of a letter attributed to him. The charges are reportedly being addressed as part of the proceeding that was adjourned to Feb. 21. Authorities also reportedly have interrogated Rajab in relation to a letter Le Monde published under his name in December, although it remains unclear whether this has resulted in new charges.

IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis criticised the proceedings against Rajab and he called on Bahrain to free Rajab immediately and drop all charges against him.

“Nabeel Rajab has spent his life tirelessly promoting human rights and raising issues of legitimate public interest,” Ellis said. “In response, the Kingdom of Bahrain has repeatedly thrown him into prison and denied him due process, taking a severe toll on his health. Mr. Rajab’s current eight-months-long detention and the multiple cases he faces are clearly an attack on freedom of expression calculated to stifle dissent. We urge Bahrain to end this attack and allow its citizens to exercise their fundamental right to free expression.”

In other news, a Bahrain court last month adjourned to Feb. 28 an administrative procedure against Bahraini journalist Nazeeha Saeed, a correspondent for Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya and France24 who is accused of illegally reporting for foreign media in violation of a law requiring a licence to do so. Authorities brought the charges in June, three months after the government refused a request by Saeed, who has worked for France24 for seven years, to renew her annual licence.