11 April 2018 – Two weeks ago, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior (MOI) announced it would expand efforts to suppress online criticism and arrested five individuals on charges related to “misuse of social media” or similar allegations. Bahraini state media reports indicate that the number of digital rights arrests has grown to at least 12[1] since the MOI announcement, while activists report that dozens more social media users may have been summoned. According to the authorities, many of the arrests are specifically “in line with the directives of the Minister of the Interior to take strict measures to address the electronic anarchy and chaos caused by some social media accounts non-compliant with the law.” Simultaneously, the MOI’s intensified campaign against social media criticism and online free expression has gained widespread government support, with several top officials, including prominent prince and Commander of the Royal Guard Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, explicitly backing the crackdown. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) reiterates its condemnation of the MOI’s new directives and is deeply concerned by the government consensus supporting these human rights restrictions. We call on the international community to bring renewed pressure to bear on these officials to reverse the course of this attack on online free expression.

Five days after the MOI’s announcement and the first arrests, Sheikh Nasser echoed the Interior Minister’s remarks and “pledged zero tolerance of any attempt to tamper with the pillars of the state,” “defame” the king, prime minister, and crown prince, or “spread fallacies and rumours.” He called on “all citizens to ignore the tendentious social media accounts as well as the rumors and fallacies posted on them to defame the kingdom’s leadership and people, which contravene Bahrain’s inherent customs and traditions,” and urged the “authorities to deal firmly” with such activity. Sheikh Nasser has a history of targeting critics and activists for arbitrary detention, and in 2011 he made similar comments wishing violence on pro-democracy protesters. There is credible evidence that Sheikh Nasser was personally involved in the torture of demonstrators and opposition figures, leading to the revocation of his immunity from prosecution in the United Kingdom. Citing this information, ADHRB has requested that the United States (US) Government review Sheikh Nasser’s human rights record with a view toward suspending his visa and withdrawing assistance to Bahraini security forces under his command.

Sheikh Nasser’s support for the MOI’s campaign has been reiterated or specifically praised by a number of other leading officials like , the royally appointed upper house of Bahrain’s National Assembly. The Shura Council “lauded” Sheikh Nasser’s “responsible statement” and “strongly condemned attempts to sow discord, threaten social texture and national unity and drive wedges among the Bahraini people through suspicious social media networks,” urging citizens to instead use “social media websites … [that] engage patriotically behind the banner of HM the King for the sake of development and to uphold the kingdom’s name at international gatherings.” The Prime Minister and the Shura Council were also joined by the Youth and Sports Affairs Minister and the Chairman of the Al-Wusta Youth Center, who expressed hope that “social media misusers will be deterred in order to maintain the Bahraini people’s unity and loyalty to the country’s leaders.”

“Such consistent support for this clear attack on free expression among Bahrain’s leadership demonstrates that the new campaign is not an isolated policy of the Interior Ministry, but that it has the full backing of the government,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “As arbitrary arrests mount, it is especially worrying to hear the same abusive rhetoric from top officials like Nasser bin Hamad – when he made these types of comments in 2011, detainees were brutally tortured under his watch. It is apparent that the government has no intention of curbing this new crackdown, so it is imperative that the international community use all means at their disposal to urge Bahrain’s authorities to change course.”

With widespread government endorsement, the MOI’s move to further suppress online activism and social media usage is only escalating. ADHRB urges the international community to pressure the Government of Bahrain – including by penalizing officials explicitly involved in such abuses like Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa and Royal Guard Commander Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa – to respect online free expression and drop all charges against individuals relating to peaceful social media use.

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[1] See the following Bahrain News Agency (BNA) reports: “Suspect remanded in custody for misusing social media,” BNA, 25 March 2018, http://www.bna.bh/portal/en/news/832799; “Three social media misusers remanded,” BNA, 27 March 2018, http://www.bna.bh/portal/en/news/833260; “Suspect remanded in custody for posting defamatory tweets,” BNA, 28 March 2018, http://www.bna.bh/portal/en/news/833446; “Suspect remanded in custody for defamatory tweets,” BNA, 30 March 2018, http://www.bna.bh/portal/en/news/833832; “Five suspects arrested for posting defamatory tweets,” BNA, 31 March 2018, http://www.bna.bh/portal/en/news/833835; “Abusive tweeter investigated,” BNA, 1 April 2018, http://www.bna.bh/portal/en/news/834036