The Middle East Channel

Backpedaling on human rights in #Bahrain

The Bahraini government seems to understand freedom of expression a bit like Lance Armstrong understands clean cycling. Like Lance, it prefers to play by its own rules and attack critics rather than accept normal standards. The Kingdom has invented a curious definition of free expression where criticizing members of the ruling family on Twitter can land you in court. The Bahraini regime's credibility is as damaged as that of world cycling -- the government needs to implement drastic measures that go beyond public relations to restore international trust.

Bahrainis can't say they weren't warned. On September 9, Bahrain's Ministry of the Interior announced it would "soon tackle crimes related to defamation and abuse on social media networks." A senior official in the ministry noted that "some people were using the communication technology to abuse national and public figures through the Internet," and that the ministry "had received many complaints from public figures affected by such acts who have demanded action against this."

So it was no surprise when four men in their 20s appeared in court earlier this month on charges that they defamed Bahraini King Hamad on Twitter. One of the their lawyers, Fatima Al Mutawa, told Human Rights First that her client was questioned about quotes from the Qur'an he had tweeted. One quote was about punishing criminals and another tweet was about the corruption of Arab leaders. "He said he never used curse words in his tweets," she said. His Twitter account has now been closed.

This seems a curious way for the Bahraini government to abide by last month's U.N. Human Rights Council recommendation that the Kingdom improve its record on freedom of expression. If anything, it seems to be pedaling backwards.

In May, prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was detained for three weeks after criticizing the Interior Ministry in a tweet. He was also fined $750. His appeal in that case is slated for consideration at the end of November. Rajab was also detained in June on separate charges stemming from his tweet that Bahrain's prime minister (the king's uncle) should step down. For that offense, Rajab was sentenced to three months in prison, a term he had nearly completed when a Bahraini court finally acquitted him on appeal.

Anyone who follows the #Bahrain hashtag on Twitter will be familiar with the constant stream of aggressive accusations from splenetic trolls, and many of us following the situation in the Kingdom are regularly subjected to personal abuse. But by targeting and intimidating users of Twitter, the government is smothering the chance for people to peacefully oppose the ruling family. Since the traditional media is largely closed to government critics and street protests are often met with excessive police force, Twitter is one of the few places where people are still able to voice peaceful dissent. Shutting off this safety valve is likely to backfire, increasing frustration with the government and inviting more ridicule of the royals.

As New York Times journalist Nick Kristof said last week, when he tweeted to 1.3 million followers that "Our ally #Bahrain arrested 4 men for defaming the king on Twitter, thus making the king look even sillier."

The Bahraini Ministry of the Interior says that its social media crackdown is not a curtailment of freedom of speech. King Hamad insists that "people are not arrested because they express their views, we only have criminals." Last month, Bahrain Ambassador to the U.S. Huda Nonoo claimed that "Bahrain expanded freedom of expression in response to the recommendations of the Bahrain Commission of Inquiry ... As a result, His Majesty the King approved changes to Bahrain's constitution bolstering this fundamental right." It's hard to tell how these promises will affect the four men officially charged with the "crime of insulting his majesty the king on their personal accounts on Twitter. " Perhaps we'll get an answer to that when the men are back in court on October 31.

Brian Dooley is Director of the Human Rights Defender Program at Human Rights First. You can follow Brian Dooley on twitter @dooley_dooley

The Middle East Channel

A fragile ceasefire has taken hold in Syria with accounts of skirmishes

A ceasefire has come into effect for Eid al-Adha on Friday, although several accounts of fighting have been reported. Late Thursday the Syrian government agreed to a four-day truce proposed by U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, but said it reserved the right to retaliate against opposition attacks. The opposition Free Syrian Army said it would comply as long as the government adheres to it. However, other opposition factions said they would not stop fighting. Syria has appeared much calmer although clashes have broken out in several locations. Protesters have taken to the streets across the country calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad. Clashes broke out Friday morning at an army base near Maaret al-Numan, where opposition fighters have been trying to overtake the military installation along a strategic highway connecting Damascus and Aleppo. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian army fired six rockets at the Khalidiya district of Homs. According to other reports, Syrian troops have hit Hajar al-Aswad, a poor district of Damascus, and violence was reported in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. In Aleppo, opposition forces were reported to have made significant gains. An earlier ceasefire negotiated by Brahimi's predecessor, Kofi Annan, failed to take hold, but did reduce the casualty count for several days. Brahimi has said he hopes that the temporary truce will allow for a sustainable political process.

Headlines  

  • Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party has formed a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman's nationalist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, widening the divisions between Israel's left and right camps.
  • Intelligence officials have reported Iran is nearing completion of its underground nuclear enrichment plant, Fordo, despite unprecedented sanctions and a plummeting economy.
  • A French poll has found a majority of people in the country believes Islam plays too significant a role in French society and threatens the national identity showing a hardening of public opinion.

Arguments and Analysis

Syria: Despite Denials, More Cluster Bomb Attacks (Human Rights Watch)

"Mounting evidence shows that Syria's air force is continuing to drop cluster bombs on towns across five governorates despite the Syrian army's denial that it is using them, Human Rights Watch said today.  Data compiled by Human Rights Watch shows an important increase in the use of cluster bombs in the past two weeks. The cluster bomb strikes are part of an intensifying air campaign by government forces on rebel-held areas that has included dropping high explosive, fragmentation, and even improvised "barrel" bombs into populated areas.

Following an October 14, 2012 report by Human Rights Watch on Syria's use of cluster bombs, Syria's army issued a statement denying it was using cluster bombs and saying it did not possess such weapons. Since then, Human Rights Watch has gathered new evidence of ongoing cluster bomb attacks by Syria's air force and has confirmed them through interviews with victims, other residents and activists who filmed the cluster munitions, as well as analysis of 64 videos and also photos showing weapon remnants of 10 new cluster bomb strikes in or near the towns of Salkeen and Kfar Takharim in the Northern governorate of Idlib; Eastern al-Buwayda, Talbiseh, Rastan, and Qusayr in Homs governorate; al-Bab in Aleppo governorate; al-Duwair and al-Salheya in Deir al-Zor governorate; and Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus."

Poorly Learned Lessons About Terrorism (Paul Pillar, The National Interest)

"Feature articles over the last couple of days in the Washington Post and New York Times demonstrate how counterterrorism as practiced by the United States is subject to contradictory forces and trends. A series in the Post describes how the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism has become an increasingly institutionalized killing machine that appears destined to operate indefinitely against a continually replenished list of targets. A piece in the Times describes a backlash over the monetary expense and compromises to privacy and civil liberties, a backlash that seems strong enough to force changes in counterterrorist programs. The different directions implied by this reporting reflect how the nation has failed to assimilate some basic principles about terrorism and measures to counter it.

One of those principles is that terrorism is not something with a beginning and an end. It is instead a tactic that has persisted throughout history. And yet the notion of a beginning and an end persists in thinking in this country about terrorism. The counterterrorism machine has gotten cranked up to run in ways that would not be acceptable to most Americans if it were to run forever, and yet there is no evident point at which, once turned on, it should be turned off. It was inevitable that a backlash would set in."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey