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Arab Gulf States’ Assault on Online Activists, Human Rights Watch

2017-07-29 - 11:22 p

Bahrain Mirror: Gulf governments have sustained their campaigns to silence peaceful critics during the first half of 2017, stated Human Rights Watch, updating an interactive website, created in November 2016, featuring targeted human rights activists. HRW noted that on July 10, 2017, a Bahraini court sentenced human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to two years in prison on charges of "broadcasting false news" over tweets criticizing the Saudi-led Yemen war and Bahrain's treatment of prisoners, adding that other prominent activists targeted during 2017 include Essam Koshak in Saudi Arabia and Ahmed Mansoor in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The human rights organization highlighted that the Gulf states' contempt for freedom of expression has bled into the current Qatar crisis. A list of demands to Qatar for ending the crisis from these countries included shutting down Al Jazeera, a direct blow to media freedom.

"At a time when the gulf states' open political divisions have rarely been more serious, these countries remain stubbornly united in their collective assault on their citizens' right to free speech," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Gulf states are reaching a new level of Orwellian reality when they throw citizens in jail for both criticizing other gulf nations and voicing public support for them."

HRW further pointed out that hundreds of dissidents, including political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and bloggers have been imprisoned across the region, many after unfair trials and allegations of torture in pretrial detention. "Gulf rulers' sweeping campaigns against activists and political dissidents have included threats, intimidation, investigations, prosecution, detention, torture, and withdrawal of citizenship."

Koshak, a computer engineer, has used social media sites such as Twitter to push for human rights in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Criminal Investigation Department summoned him for questioning on January 8, 2017, without giving a reason, and detained him when he arrived. Rajab, co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), has spent several periods in prison for his peaceful criticism of the Bahraini government. Authorities arrested Rajab on June 13, 2016, over tweets that criticized the Saudi-led war in Yemen and Bahrain's treatment of prisoners. On July 10, a Bahraini court sentenced him to two years in prison on charges of "spreading false news... in an attempt to discredit Bahrain," "offending a foreign country [Saudi Arabia]," and "offending national institutions." Mansoor, an engineering student at Ajman University, is a prominent human rights activist and a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East Advisory Committee. Informed sources have told rights groups that about a dozen security officers arrested Mansoor at his home in Ajman in the pre-dawn hours of March 20. He is facing speech-related charges that include using social media websites to "publish false information that harms national unity."

The HR group further stated that in addition to direct repression, gulf governments have acquired and deployed surveillance technology to track and monitor citizens' online activity, including Mansoor's.

In May 2016, Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto program that does research on advanced technology, security, and human rights, reported that it had discovered a campaign of spyware attacks by a sophisticated operator against Emirati journalists, activists, and dissidents. On July 2, the Wall Street Journal reported that officials working with newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman purchased software to prevent criticism of the government by spying on Saudis online.

Concluding their article, Human Rights Watch stressed that Gulf countries' repression of political dissidents and activists based solely on their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression violates international human rights obligations. "Gulf states are intimidating, surveilling, imprisoning, and silencing activists as part of their all-out assault on peaceful criticism. They should stop blocking gulf citizens from using social and other media to push for positive reforms," said Whitson.

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