Bahrain: Targeting of human rights defenders and online activists accelerates

27.05.19

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is concerned at ongoing efforts of the Bahraini authorities to persecute human rights defenders and silence online activists deemed to be critical of the country’s policies. Tactics used by authorities include summoning Twitter users and criminalising free expression, and sentencing human rights defenders, journalists and online activists to long prison terms and revoking their citizenship.

On 19 May 2019, the Director General of Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security at the Ministry of Interior claimed in a public statement that "an investigation into the social media accounts that tended to encourage sedition and harm civil peace, social fabric and stability had shown that most of them were managed by sources in Iran, Qatar, Iraq and European countries. Many of them were also handled by the fugitives convicted in absentia.” He added, “those accounts had been involved in executing a systematic plan to tarnish the image of Bahrain and its people and promote sedition and disharmony in society.” He also said that, “legal action would also be taken against those social media accounts that posted illegal content or information to harm civil peace and social fabric. He stressed the importance of not dealing or interacting with those accounts and networks to avoid accountability.”

Well-known human rights defender Sayed Yousif Al-Muhafdah (pictured on bottom left), who was forced to flee Bahrain to Germany to escape imprisonment, and human rights defender Hussein Al-Satri (pictured on top right), who is living in Australia, have both been subjected to a campaign of defamation and slander from the Bahraini Ministry of Interior. In an official statement published on 19 May 2019, the Ministry accused the two men of running fake Twitter accounts with the aim of inciting sedition and threatening public order in the country.

Al-Muhafdah said, “This is a totally false accusation. I consider the Ministry of Interior’s statement to be a threat and believe that I am being targeted and punished merely for my human rights activism.” Al-Muhafdah is Vice President of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights and a board member of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR). He continued, “As a result of this statement, I fear what action the Bahraini authorities will take next against me, and I fear for my family in Bahrain and worry that they may face harassment. This is especially so since the Bahraini King and Prime Minister called for those involved in running these Twitter accounts to be held to account.”

In addition, he reported that on 21 May, media outlet Al-Arabiya published a video report about the Ministry’s statement that was not neutral, but “reported it as fact, describing Hussein and myself as ‘wanted’ men.” Al-Muhafdah is consulting a lawyer for a potential defamation suit against Al-Arabiya.

In another case, on 21 May 2019, the Anti-Cyber Crime Unit accused journalist Adel Marzooq (pictured bottom middle), head of the Bahrain Press Association (BPA), of encouraging sedition between members of society. In response, Marzooq denied harming society and wrote on Twitter that he is expressing his opinion. He further explained that the political analysis being published about the Gulf and Bahrain from time to time is, “a purely journalistic work.”

That same day, on 21 May, lawyer and Internet activist Abdulla Hashim (pictured bottom right) was released, but he said on his Twitter account: “My phone has been seized as an instrument of crime…. This means that the case is pending and this release does not mean the end of the case.” He was summoned by the Public Prosecutor to appear on 15 May 2019 for “publishing false and unfounded news that would harm the public order, cause confusion and instability among the community as well as questioning the performance of the authorities and their ability to maintain security and protect society,” through Twitter posts.

In yet another case that violates free expression, on 6 May 2019, the Bahrain Court of Cassation upheld the verdict against journalist Mahmoud Abdu-Ridha Al-Jazeeri (pictured top left), who was sentenced to 15 years in prison and had his nationality revoked. The court also upheld the verdict against online activist Ali Al-Muraj (pictured top middle), who was sentenced to 25 years in prison and had his nationality revoked, among others accused of being members of terrorist cells. For background on the case, see: https://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/1817

On 23 May 2019, the King of Bahrain ratified the amendment of Law No. 58 of 2006 on the protection of society from terrorist acts. Under this amendment, the text of Article 11 has been replaced by "shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years and a fine not less than two thousand dinars and not exceeding five thousand dinars, anyone who has done anything to promote, glorify, maximise, justify, favour or encourage acts constituting a punishable terrorist activity, whether inside or outside the Kingdom." There is no doubt that this amendment in its broad form and its words, which cannot be precisely defined and is open for any interpretation by the security forces, is aimed primarily at silencing and prosecuting Internet activists, not only inside but outside Bahrain too, and also severely restricting freedom of expression on the Internet and beyond.

GCHR calls on the authorities in Bahrain to:

  1. Respect the right to freedom of expression, including on Twitter, and stop prosecuting Twitter users for peaceful online comments, including through the use of the cyber-crimes law and other laws;
  2. Respect the right to fair trial and halt the use of terrorism laws to silence journalists and delegitimise the work of human rights defenders;
  3. Immediately and unconditionally release Mahmoud Abdu-Ridha Al-Jazeeri and Ali Al-Muraj, in addition to all journalists, media workers and human rights defenders who are prosecuted because of their legitimate human rights work; and
  4. Guarantee in all circumstances that all journalists, online activists and human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.