Bahrain's Government Has Declared War On Twitter
On February 14, 2011, thousands in Bahrain, both Shia and Sunni, took to the streets demanding democracy and reform in their country. The only Gulf country with a Shia majority governed by a Sunni ruling family, the Bahraini government responded to the protests with violence and suppression. Peaceful demonstrators, along with medics, journalists, and other citizens that came to their aid, were arrested, detained, tortured, and even killed for their involvement.
In response to international pressure, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa ordered the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to document human rights violations that occurred during the protests. The BICI report found over 500 cases of torture and 46 deaths as a result. Yet even with these documentations and a promise from King Hamad to hold accountable those responsible for human-rights abuses, the culture of impunity continues. The ruling family's suppression and intimidation tactics have included the use of arrest, detention, physical and psychological abuse, torture, and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
Twitter has been frequently used during the Arab Spring as it provides immediate, and often anonymous, information. Witnesses can document abuses by security forces with photographs and inform participants where a protest is to occur. This type of instant news creates a challenge for governments that practice systematic censorship of unwanted information. In an effort to combat this, the government of Bahrain has begun to target Twitter users with harsh punishments, including torture and jail.
A report released by Bahrain Watch last month found the Bahraini security forces used fake Twitter accounts to track opposition tweets and obtain IP (Internet Protocol) addresses for prosecution.
In October 2012, four people were charged with defaming King Hamad on Twitter, while in May of this year, a Bahraini court sentenced six people to a year in jail for tweets it claimed were “insulting to the king.” Amnesty International called for the release of all Twitter users currently detained for their expression of freedom of speech. Below are four prominent cases involving Twitter users in Bahrain:
1. Nabeel Rajab
President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab was accused of fabricating images of a body showing signs of torture in the wake of the 2011 Bahrain uprising. He was arrested multiple times before being detained in July and sentenced to three years in jail in August under multiple charges, including “participating in illegal practices, inciting illegal assemblies, and organizing unlicensed demonstrations through social media websites.” An appeals court acquitted Rajab of the defamation charges in August 2012, but his sentence of three years was upheld. In December 2012, Rajab’s sentence was reduced to two years but he remains in jail to this day.
2. Said Yousif al-Muhafda
Human rights activist and head of documentation at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Said Yousif al-Muhafda was arrested by Bahraini police on December 17, 2012 while tweeting from a protest, including a tweet with a photo of an injured protester's leg. The Bahrain government charged al-Muhafda with “disseminating false information regarding the clashes between the security forces and protesters in the Manama Souq last Monday, December 17, on his twitter account.” In March 2013, al-Muhafda was acquitted and released. Al-Muhafda continues to report on protests and human rights violations in Bahrain.
3. Ali Faisal al-Shofa
Unlike al-Muhafda and Rajeeb, al-Shofa doesn’t work with an NGO or opposition group. Alshofa is a 17-year-old high school student who on June 25, 2013 was sentenced to a year in prison for “insulting the king” on Twitter. On March 25, 2013, his house was raided at dawn by police, who kept him in detention for two months. The government alleges that al-Shofa insulted the king using the twitter account, @alkawarahnews. However, he denies any relation to the account. Although Merfact Janashi, al-Shofa’s lawyer, submitted evidence showing that the account is run by someone else, al-Shofa remains behind bars.
4. Jaffar Al-Demstani
After tweeting about his imprisoned father, Al-Demstani was kidnapped around 3 a.m. at his house on June 20, 2013. He was taken by “armed masked men in civilian clothes,” believed to belong to the secret police of the Interior Ministry of Bahrain. Al-Demstani tweeted details of the torture his father had received while in prison, including a statement that his father had been denied medical treatment and access to a doctor. His whereabouts are still unknown at this time.