WHO WILL BE LEFT TO DEFEND HUMAN RIGHTS? PERSECUTION OF ONLINE EXPRESSION IN THE GULF AND NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES

09.11.21

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Human Right Defenders (HRDs) in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries face an increasingly hostile environment for exercising freedom of expression online. This report by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law documents 225 incidents between May 2018 and October 2020, evidencing how governments in the region used anti-cybercrime and other laws, along with specialised law enforcement institutions, to criminalise online expression in violation of international law.

States have enacted anti-cybercrime legislation that restricts and criminalises protected online expression, including by extending the application of problematic penal restrictions existing in other laws to online communication and assembly. In addition, governments used against HRDs criminal defamation and insult laws, as well as vague and overbroad criminal prohibitions of expression that officials consider threatening to public order, national security, or other similar interests. Equipped with this broad legal arsenal, governments arrested, prosecuted, and imposed stiff sentences, including the death penalty, on defenders engaged in the legitimate and valuable activity of promoting human rights through online expression. This study found 225 credible incidents of online freedom of expression (FOE) violations against HRDs between May 2018 and October 2020. There is a clear pattern throughout the region of governments seeking to strictly control and limit expression of which they disapprove.

The States included in this study are Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. For each, this report analyses their domestic anti-cybercrime and other relevant laws against international human rights law and standards and identifies the trends of violating online freedom of expression among the reported incidents. 

International Legal Background

The targeted repression of HRDs by criminalizing or restricting online expression of dissenting views implicate domestic and international institutions and standard setting. The United Nations has encouraged international cooperation and regional harmonisation of laws in combating cybercrime as a necessary crime control tool but has not prevented countries from including in domestic legislation restrictions on online content that are incompatible with international law and standards. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) effectively endorsed a proposed model cybercrime legislation drafted for the region by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and adopted by the League of Arab States in 2004. Articles 20-22 of the model law criminalise online content that is “contrary to the public order and morals,” facilitates assistance of terrorist groups, as well as accesses or discloses confidential government information related to national security or the economy. These criminalized content restrictions have been widely replicated in domestic laws throughout the region which have greatly expanded the ability of governments to sanction online views of which they disapprove. The commitment of States to a regional approach to cybercrimes is further evidenced by the 2010 Arab Convention on Combating Information Technology Offences (ACC), which all 22 Arab State members of the League of Arab States have signed. 

At the same time as the international community effectively facilitated State criminalisation of online expression through national cybercrime laws, UN human rights mechanisms drew attention to the threat to HRDs of internet and communication regulations. The UN Human Rights Council adopted its 2012 resolution affirming the protection of online freedom of expression, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of expression (SR on FOE) has issued several reports on the topic. International human rights institutions continue to affirm the importance of HRDs to the ecosystem of rights protections even as States too often fail to observe their obligations to provide a safe and enabling environment to HRDs. Given the centrality of online communication to human rights work, this report focuses on incidents in which the government targeted online expression by HRDs. However, government persecution of defenders violates multiple rights. Therefore, the report also examines the impacts of such targeting on other international rights including the right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, the right to privacy protection from unwarranted surveillance, as well as violations of physical integrity associated with arbitrary arrests including incommunicado detention, enforced disappearance, and torture. 

Methodology 

The dataset for this study consists of two components: (1) the anti-cybercrime and other relevant laws the ten States used to create a hostile climate for online freedom of expression of HRDs; and (2) the 225 credible reports within our period of study of online freedom of expression violations against HRDs. To identify credible evidence of violations, researchers consulted a range of independent sources documenting such violations, including published responses from UN Special Procedures communications alleging FOE violations; human rights reports from international and regional human rights organisations; as well as media reports from international, regional, and national outlets.

Given the limited number of sources and the difficulty of reporting on human rights violations in these countries, it is fair to assume that this study does not capture all incidents of violations of the right to online freedom of expression that occurred during the period under study. Nevertheless, the findings below are based on the representative sample of the reported incidents and demonstrate consistent patterns of the suppression of free expression. 

Findings 

Looking across all ten countries under study, the clear trend that emerges is of authorities relying on a variety of laws that impermissibly restrict online expression to target HRDs for communicating views online that are critical of the government or its policies. 

Arbitrary Laws Restricting Freedom of Expression

The States in this study (except Iraq where an anti-cybercrime law has been considered but not adopted) have enacted anti-cybercrime laws that criminalise internationally protected expression—including criticism or insult of public officials and institutions, or religious speech—to arrest, charge, and prosecute HRDs. However, anti-cybercrime laws are only one legal tool governments used. Governments also relied on impermissibly vague, overbroad, or disproportionate criminal provisions contained in other laws, including penal codes, anti-terrorism laws, telecommunications laws, and/or media and press laws. Such laws include, for example, provisions that impose criminal rather than civil penalties on defamation, prohibitions on speech that “threatens public order,” fake news, or expression deemed as “glorifying” terrorism. These prohibitions criminalise expression that is affirmatively protected under international law.

What Type of Online Human Rights Activities Are Targeted? 

Governments principally targeted online expression that is critical of the government or its policies. Journalists were frequently victims. Authorities violated the FOE rights of journalists in all countries, including for reporting on public protests against the government through news stories, videos, and social media. Officials in Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and UAE also criminally charged HRDs for criticising the foreign policy or interests of the government.

Advocates for minority rights and women’s rights were also targeted. Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia took legal action against HRDs for their online advocacy for the rights of minority communities in their countries. And in all countries, authorities targeted women human rights defenders and/or others who advocated online for women’s rights. For example, in May 2018, authorities in Saudi Arabia carried out mass arrests of women HRDs for their support of women’s rights, including through online activism. Officials charged all of these women defenders under the cybercrime law, and, charged, tried and convicted some for violating the counterterrorism law.  

Additional Human Rights Violations 

The human rights violations in addition to freedom of expression that State actors committed across the region while repressing online FOE exhibit the following trends. 

Arbitrary arrests 

Because authorities invoked laws that arbitrarily restricted online content in arresting HRDs, governments in all countries additionally violated the prohibition against arbitrary arrests when officials took defenders into custody for alleged violations of those restrictions. 

Surveillance 

Online surveillance of HRDs was a common State practice. Governments in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE reportedly surveilled or gained access to private communications of HRDs who the government targeted for their online activism. During the reporting period, the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto found evidence of suspected infections by the Pegasus spyware program of mobile phones in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, which would have allowed those governments to survey the infected individuals’ private communications. 

Freedom of Association

Governments violated the freedom of association rights of HRDs by targeting their online expression. In Iraq and Jordan there were credible reports that law enforcement targeted HRDs for social media posts organising anti-government protests. Additionally, in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia authorities arrested groups of defenders that were working on the same cause, which raises concerns regarding the protection of these HRDs’ right to association. And in UAE, the anti-cybercrime law implicates freedom of association by prohibiting online expression calling for “unauthorised” protests. 

Incommunicado Detention, Enforced Disappearances, and Torture 

There was a disturbing pattern of gross violations of human rights related to the arrest of HRDs for legitimate online expression, including incommunicado detention, enforced disappearances, and torture. There were credibly reported cases of one or more of each type of violation in every country except Bahrain (where there were no reported incidents that included allegations of incommunicado detention, enforced disappearance, or torture). Iran executed Ruhollah Zam for his reporting on government protests via an online news channel, and Saudi Arabia murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. 

Specialised Legal Infrastructure 

Most States under study have created specialised enforcement units or courts to investigate and/or prosecute violations of online content restrictions. In all nine of the countries with cybercrime laws (Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and UAE), authorities have established these institutions capable of surveilling, arresting, prosecuting, and ultimately convicting HRDs for their online advocacy. Many of these units engaged in widely publicised mass enforcement campaigns, signaling to HRDs and the population in general that their online activity is monitored. 

Courts dedicated to prosecuting cybercrimes posed distinct threats to HRDs due to their inadequate due process protections. For example, in Saudi Arabia, the Specialised Criminal Court is seemingly empowered to extend pre-trial and incommunicado detention to lengthy periods of time, is reported to have relied on confessions obtained through torture, and is described by human rights bodies as insufficiently independent of the executive. Weak judicial protections for HRDs enable State repression of defenders. 

Transnational Collaboration Targeting HRDs 

The study found several reported incidents in which governments collaborated with each other to punish online advocacy they found detrimental to their allies or to their own foreign policy. There is credible evidence that Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, worked across borders with other governments to repress HRDs, at least partially for their online advocacy. One egregious example is the cooperation between Iraqi intelligence officials and Iranian authorities to arrest and abduct Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam from Iraq and bring him to Iran where Zam was tried, convicted, and executed.

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