SHAFAQNA – The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) is gravely concerned about the ongoing deterioration of the Internet freedom situation in Bahrain. On the occasion of World Day Against Cyber Censorship, held on 12 March, the BCHR renews its calls for an Internet without restrictions and accessible to all, and calls for the release of all those who were detained for exercising free speech online. In fact, Bahrain is regarded as an enemy of the Internet according to the Reporters without Borders’ 2014 report and is categorized “Not Free” in the Freedom House report “Freedom on The Net 2014”.
In Bahrain, the government practices a systematic harassment of citizens who make use of their free speech online. The BCHR has extensively been documenting the cases of people who have been arrested, tortured, prosecuted and sentenced for having freely expressed themselves online, through the use of social media. For instance, the well-known satirical blogger Takrooz (@Takrooz) – Hussain Mahdi – was arrested on 18 June 2014, after having been targeted for a long time with spy links that aims to identify his real identity.
He was held in detention for over seven months before his trial started in January 2015. His lawyer said that Hussain has been tortured in detention. Takrooz has been an active voice in outlining the government crackdown on activists; his tweets covered abuse by law enforcement personnel, anti-corruption content and everyday concerns of the average Bahraini.
Another target of Bahrain’s Cyber Crime Unit has been the award winning photographer Hussain Hubail who was arrested in July 2013 and received a sentence of five years in prison, upheld by the High Court of Appeals on 21 September 2014, on charges including the “use of social media networks to incite hatred of the regime”. The BCHR received information that Hubail was subjected to torture while he was in detention at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID); he was beaten, kicked in the stomach and face, kept in an extremely cold room, forced to stand up for long periods of time and deprived from sleeping. Moreover, when he was transferred to the Dry Dock Detention Centre, the authorities failed to properly give him his medication for a heart illness; it was not given to him in the correct dose nor at the correct time. They also failed to give it to him every day in spite of him needing it.
Yet another important target of the authorities in Bahrain is the prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who has been the subject of persecution by Bahraini security forces for his activism for years prior to the breakout of major protests in the country in 2011. Four months after completing a two-year prison sentence, Rajab was arrested again because of a tweet deemed “insulting” to the Ministry of Interior and Bahrain’s security forces. Several organizations and members of the European Parliament have urged the Bahraini government to drop the charges and release Rajab unconditionally. Rajab is currently out on bail, awaiting his new date of appeal, that has been postponed twice, now set for 15 March 2015.
Unfortunately, there are numerous other cases of arrests and sentences related to online free speech. For instance, on 27 January 2015, nine men (Mohammed Saeed Al Adraj, 24 years, Mohammed Ahmed Ali, 21 years, Yousif Fadhel Salman, 21 years, Abas Ali Ahmed, 21 years, Kameel Ibrahim Yousif, 19 years, and Hussain Mohammed Ahmed, 22 years) were arrested, for allegedly having, according to the Ministry of Interior in Bahrain, misused social media. Finally, it is worth mentioning that thousands of websites in Bahrain, including BCHR’s website, continue to be blocked in Bahrain.
In 2014, a total of 18 users were subject to arrest or prosecution or both for their online activity, and a total of 184 months have been handed down to nine of them for posts over twitter, instagram and chatting applications like whatsapp.
The BCHR is gravely concerned about the escalation of the repression exercised by the Bahraini government against online freedom of speech and calls on the international community to intensify its efforts in pressuring the Bahraini government to drop all charges and release all of those who are being sentenced for exercising their internationally protected right to freedom of expression.
The BCHR calls on the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States and other national and international bodies to call on Bahrain to:
- Immediately release all persons who are detained for practicing their right to freedom of speech and expression online in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and drop all charges against them;
- Urge the Bahraini government to repeal laws that infringe upon the internationally protected right of free expression.