On 8 June 2019, Access Now announced Bahraini activist Mohammed Al-Maskati as one of the recipients of the 2018 Human Rights Heroes award. Al-Maskati was chosen because of his efforts to provide digital security training to human rights defenders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, presented the award at RightsCon Tunis earlier this month.

The rapid development of state surveillance technologies enables oppressive regimes to infringe on internationally recognized human rights including the right to privacy, freedom of expression and information, and freedom of association. In an effort to combat these worrying trends, a group of experts developedthe 13 “Necessary and Proportionate Principles” in 2013, which apply human rights laws and standards to current surveillance practices. Each year, Access Now selects individuals for the Human Rights Heroes award who protect these 13 principles in their human rights work. Selection criteria includes but is not limited to an individual’s impact in the field, embodiment of the 13 Principles, diversity and value, and ability to connect with users.

Al-Maskati was designated a “Human Rights Hero” for his work securing the information of vulnerable individuals and protecting activists in the MENA region from digital surveillance. In 2018, Al-Maskati launched the website digital-protection.tech, which provides Arabic security tools and manuals that allow human rights activists to avoid the surveillance of oppressive regimes through access to a 24/7 response team. The team equips human rights activists with up-to-date training, instruction manuals, and security products previously not made available by software and app developers in the region. Al-Maskati is also the founder and current president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR) and is an active participant at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Al-Maskati additionally works as a Digital Protection Consultant of the MENA region for Front Line Defenders and as a Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) Volunteer IT Expert. Through both his website, volunteer consultation, and specialized workshops, Al-Maskati provides training to human rights defenders in GCHR’s network.

Al-Maskati has been repeatedly targeted in relation to his human rights work in Bahrain. In 2005, Al-Maskati’s registration of BYSHR as a non-governmental organization with the Bahraini government was denied, and Al-Maskati was later charged with leading an “unregistered organization” in 2007 after the group continued to operate. He was found guilty in 2010 and ordered to pay a fine of 500 Bahraini dinars, despite appeals from international human rights organizations. Al-Maskati has also been targeted for his participation in the Human Rights Council. Between 2011 and 2012, Al-Maskati received death threats and repeated harassment for his visits to Geneva to raise awareness of human rights abuses on the international stage.

On 16 October 2012, a few weeks after attending a panel at the Human Rights Council, Al-Maskati was detained overnight and interrogated on charges of “rioting and participation in an illegal gathering” for his involvement in a peaceful protest. He was released the following day, pending his trial. At the end of 2014, Al-Maskati was sentenced to six months in prison but remained free on bail until the completion of the appeals process,and was acquitted of the charges by the Court of Appeals in 2016. The targeting of Al-Maskati represents a fate typical of many human rights defenders throughout the MENA region, and particularly in Bahrain. Constant legal harassment, threats, arbitrary detention, and interrogation are all common tactics designed to silence dissent and prevent the work of human rights defenders and activists.

Access Now awarded Mohammed Al-Maskati the title ‘Human Rights Hero’ in recognition of his continued advocacy on behalf of human rights. Through his organization Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights and his website, Al-Maskati continues to defend internet privacy and assist other activists by providing materials, training, and internet assistance, despite repeated judicial harassment and personal safety threats. Due to the risky work of Al-Maskati and human rights defenders like him, individuals vulnerable to government surveillance are able to receive assistance in their human rights campaigns and protection from retaliation.

MacKenzie LeMunyan is an Advocacy Intern with ADHRB