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Online crackdown in the Middle East

In the United Arab Emirates (4th quartile), after a year of pre-trial detention, blogger and activist Ahmed Mansoor was tried in court without a lawyer and sentenced to ten years in prison for charges of insulting the country’s status, prestige, symbols, and leaders. Authorities had released no information about his whereabouts since September 2017.[1]

Nabeel Rajab, Bahraini activist and founding director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, was repeatedly sentenced during 2018 for tweets about the escalating humanitarian crisis the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen caused, and for documenting allegations of torture in prisons.[2] In May, Rajab was handed a five-year sentence. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention judged the detention both arbitrary and discriminatory.[3]

This doesn’t look to be the last prosecution of this sort; Bahrain’s Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, declared in February 2018 that ‘any attempt to undermine the citizens’ security or to make them feel insecure because of the misuse of social media networks’ will now be considered not just a crime but ‘cyberterrorism’.[4]

Journalists and activists in Bahrain face wide-ranging restrictions on online free expression, civil society activism, and critical speech across a redundant network of legislation – including the penal code, press law, anti-terror law, and cybercrime law – but these new ‘cyberterrorism’ regulations could impose even harsher penalties for online dissent.[5]

A month after the Prime Minister’s announcement, Bahrain’s Interior Minister announced new security force capacity to ‘track down’ activists criticising the government on social media; five arrests were made on the same day for ‘misusing social media’.[6]

Sheikh Ali Salman – Secretary-General of Bahrain’s largest political opposition society, Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society – has been serving a four-year prison sentence for charges in response to political speeches he delivered in 2014, and faces a potential death sentence on new and spurious charges introduced in 2018.[7]

Bahrain continued its notorious policy of stripping citizenship of dissenters, leaving many stateless.[8]

Oman’s authorities cracked down on online activists during 2018, with a writer and two activists jailed.[9]

In September, Jordan’s lower legislative chamber of parliament approved provisions that threatened freedom of expression, including an overbroad definition of online ‘hate speech’, which would criminalise statements that spread rumours against people with the aim of damaging their reputation. In December, following demonstrations against the law, it was suspended in order to examine its provisions further.[10]

 

[1] ARTICLE 19, UAE: Ahmed Mansoor’s 10-Year Sentence Shows Crackdown on Human Rights Defenders and Free Speech, 31 May 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/resources/uae-human-rights-defender-ahmed-mansoors-10-years-sentence-shows-crackdown-on-free-expression/

[2] IFEX, ‘Utterly unacceptable: IFEX condemns Nabeel Rajab’s sentence for comments on Twitter’, 26 February 2018, available at https://ifex.org/bahrain/2018/02/26/nabeel-5-year-sentence/

[3] Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Bahrain: JOINT STATEMENT: 127 Rights Groups Call For Immediate Release of Nabeel Rajab after UN Group Calls His Detention Arbitrary and Discriminatory, 29 August 2018, available at https://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/1936

[4] Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, Bahrain Vows Greater Crackdown on Online Criticism Amid New Arrests, 30 March 2018, available at https://www.adhrb.org/2018/03/bahrain-vows-greater-crackdown-on-online-criticism-amid-new-arrests/

[5] ADHRB, ECDHR, English PEN, PEN International, and RSF, Submission to the Universal Periodic Review, 22 September 2016, available at https://uprdoc.ohchr.org/uprweb/downloadfile.asp.x?filename=3949&file=EnglishTranslation

[6] Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, Bahrain Vows Greater Crackdown on Online Criticism Amid New Arrests, 30 March 2018, available at https://www.adhrb.org/2018/03/bahrain-vows-greater-crackdown-on-online-criticism-amid-new-arrests/

[7] Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, ‘Political speech is not a crime: Urgent appeal to stop the trial of Sheikh Ali Salman’, IFEX, 18 June 2018, available at https://ifex.org/bahrain/2018/06/18/sheikh-ali-salman/

[8] Human Rights Watch, Bahrain: New Deportations of Nationals, 4 February 2018, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/04/bahrain-new-deportations-nationals

[9] Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Oman: Internal Security Service Continues Systematic Targeting of Internet Activists, 19 April 2018, available at http://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/1833

[10] Amnesty International, Jordan 2018, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/jordan/report-jordan/

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