DUBAI: Bahraini authorities yesterday announced they would be taking “severe measures” to track down dissidents who use social media, as the Gulf monarchy tightens its grip on political opposition. Social networking sites, notably Twitter, are a major platform for rights activists in the tiny kingdom, which according to Amnesty International has stripped hundreds of dissidents of citizenship in cases that have failed to meet the standards of a fair trial.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said the government was adopting “severe measures to deal with unprecedented chaos by disruptive social media accounts”, in a statement published by the official Bahrain News Agency. The minister did not identify any account but said some had been flagged by the authorities for “spreading malicious rumours that strike at the heart of the social fabric and civil peace”. “We are not far from tracking down those behind this, and taking legal action against them,” Khalifa said, adding that if necessary new legislation could be passed.
Authorities in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, a tiny Shiite-majority kingdom strategically located between rival Saudi Arabia and Iran, have jailed dozens of activists and disbanded both religious and secular opposition groups since pro-democracy protests broke out in 2011. The government has accused Iranian authorities of backing the protest movement in a bid to overthrow it. Tehran denies involvement. Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab, a leading figure in the protests, has been behind bars since 2015 for tweets critical of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.
Over the weekend, Bahraini opposition activists who live in exile also took to Twitter to raise awareness over hunger strikes by female relatives, accusing authorities of stripping one woman naked after a family visit. A key US ally and home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the kingdom is also home to a British military base that is under construction. US President Donald Trump has eased restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain since taking office in January last year.
Exiled rights activist
Meanwhile, Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, a prominent Bahraini rights campaigner exiled in Britain, said a Bahraini court had sentenced his wife to two months in jail in absentia this week and that his mother-in-law had begun a hunger strike in jail. AlWadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) and one of the most outspoken critics of the Gulf island kingdom, alleges the government’s treatment of his family was aimed at silencing his activism.
“Their escalation against both of my family members was no coincidence,” AlWadaei, who has lived in exile since 2012 said. Asked if Bahraini authorities were trying to muzzle him, he replied, “Of course. My wife was beaten, mistreated and threatened that they are going after our family to punish me. Now all their threats were executed.”
Bahraini authorities did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment. A close US and British ally, Sunni Muslim-ruled Bahrain has cracked down on the opposition, hailing mostly from the Shiite Muslim majority, since it crushed pro-democracy demonstrations they led in 2011. Rights groups have accused authorities of seeking to stamp out dissent. The government says the opposition is linked to militants backed by their arch-enemy Iran who have carried out years of deadly bombing and shooting attacks on security forces.
AlWadaei’s wife Duaa was detained and interrogated as she and their son departed Bahrain’s airport after a visit in 2016. When she complained that she was physically abused during questioning about his activities and movements – charges authorities have denied – she was charged with insulting state institutions and sentenced in absentia to two months in jail on Wednesday, AlWadaei said. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticised Duaa AlWadaei’s sentence and urged the kingdom, where the US bases its Fifth Fleet, not to prosecute free speech.
“We saw the report that a Bahraini criminal court sentenced her in absentia to … two months in prison for allegedly insulting a state institution. Really?” “We strongly urge the government to abide by its international obligations and commitments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and that includes the freedom of expression.” AlWadaei also said his mother-in-law Hajer Mansoor Hassan began a hunger strike on Tuesday to protest against alleged restrictions to her privacy and monitoring of phone calls, and was moved to an Interior Ministry hospital two days later.
She was sentenced to three years in jail in October for planting a “fake bomb” meant to taunt police. She denied the charges. Bahrain’s National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), a state body, said on Twitter that the Interior Ministry had described Mansoor’s health as “normal and stable.” “(We have) not received any complaints or requests for help from Ms Hajer Mansoor Ali or her representative to date,” the NIHR tweeted. Another female activist at the same prison, Medina Ali, also began a hunger strike to protest against a strip search and in solidarity with Hassan, BIRD reported.- Agencies