Online Activists Harassed & Jailed in Arab Gulf States
The social media platform Twitter limits the size of each Twitter post, or tweet, to 140 characters. According to Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, the 140 character limit was imposed to force users of the social media network to be creative.1 Along with millions of others users around the world, political dissidents and activists in the Arab Gulf States have taken up that challenge with enthusiasm. But their creativity in criticizing authoritarian governments on Twitter and other online social media often gets them into serious trouble.
In a nod to Twitter's 140-character limit, this report presents the profiles of 140 prominent Bahrani, Kuwaiti, Omani, Qatari, Saudi, and Emirati social and political rights activists and dissidents, and their struggles to resist government efforts to silence them. All 140 have faced government retaliation for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and many have been arrested, tried, and sentenced to fines or prison terms.
In recent years there has been a rapid expansion of the popularity and use of social networking internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube activity in the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Increased human rights advocacy and opposition political activity, and government efforts to counter them, have been closely tied to this expansion.
Though internet services became widely available to GCC citizens only in the early 2000s, Internet World Stats reported that by November 2015 36 million of the total GCC population of 48 million were internet users and that many of them were also active on social media networking sites.2 According to the Arab Social Media Report, GCC countries accounted 17.2 million Facebook users and 3.5 million Twitter users through the first quarter of 2014. By late 2015 Saudi Arabia alone maintained 2.4 million active Twitter users, representing over 40 percent of all Twitter users in the Middle East.3
Internet penetration and the growth of social networking tools since 2011 have created new opportunities for activists and dissidents in Arab Gulf states to correspond with each other and express their ideas. Most of the activists profiled in this report used social media and online forums to initiate campaigns, build networks, and increase awareness for their ideas. Tens of thousands of Saudi citizens, for example, have participated in online campaigns, such as a call to free Samar Badawi, a woman jailed for "parental disobedience" in 2010 according to a judge's interpretation of Islamic law, and online advocacy campaigns encouraging Saudi women to drive in defiance of the government ban on women driving.
Social media networks were a major factor in planning and organizing street protests in some GCC countries during the Arab uprisings of 2011. In Bahrain, social media networks were used to organize nearly four weeks of massive pro-democracy demonstrations, which ended in March 2011 when state security forces under the command of the ruling Al Khalifa family used disproportionate and in some cases lethal force to crackdown on the protest movement. In February 2011 thousands of Omanis took to the streets in cities throughout the country in pro-reform protests that continued into 2012.
GCC governments have responded to political challenges and peaceful online criticism with repression. Hundreds of dissidents, including political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and bloggers, have been imprisoned across the region, many after unfair trials and allegations of torture in pretrial detention. GCC rulers' sweeping campaigns against civil society activists and political dissidents have included threats, intimidation, investigations, prosecutions, detentions, torture, and withdrawal of citizenship.
The 140 individuals profiled in this report come from different sects and viewpoints. Some are political dissidents, others are human rights activists, while still others are GCC citizens who have no background in activism or political activity yet faced government retribution for views expressed online or in public. The 140 cases represent the most prominent individuals in the Arab Gulf states who have faced government retaliation for exercising their right to free expression, but dozens of other individuals not included in this report have faced similar harassment and repression. Human Rights Watch does not endorse all of the views expressed by individuals profiled in this report. These views, which in some cases may be offensive or objectionable, nevertheless do not amount to speech that GCC governments can lawfully restrict without violating international human rights standards.
Human Rights Watch has not documented clear evidence of intrusive surveillance of GCC citizens and residents by their governments. However, leaked corporate documents and reports from independent security researchers reveal that that Western companies have sold intrusion software to GCC governments that can be used to violate citizens' privacy rights. Research conducted by Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab has found evidence that intrusion software from Italian firm Hacking Team has been used by governments in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE, while Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE may have purchased other intrusion software from FinFisher/Gamma International.4 FinFisher/Gamma International and Hacking Team suffered data breaches in 2014 and 2015 respectively, where internal emails and documents from each company were leaked online.5 These leaked documents corroborated many of Citizen Lab's findings and also identified additional customers, including the use of Hacking Team in Bahrain.6
Hacking Team and FinFisher/Gamma International sell intrusion software that allows a government to hack into laptops and mobile devices. Once such software is installed on a device, it can enable a government to access emails, text messages, call histories, contact lists, files, and potentially passwords. This software also allows authorities to turn on a phone or laptop's camera and microphone to take pictures or record video and conversations without the owner's knowledge. Both companies state that they only sell their tools and services to governments.
Bahrain Watch, a nongovernment organization that works to investigate the Government of Bahrain's use of commercial hacking tools, published a report in September 2013 providing evidence that Bahraini authorities have use malicious links and social engineering to target anonymous social media accounts, apparently in an effort to infect their devices and identify their operators.7 In August 2014, Bahrain Watch reported that the Bahraini government had infected the computers of some of the country's most prominent lawyers, activists and politicians with FinFisher's spyware.8 In June 2014, security researchers at Citizen Lab identified a malicious, altered version of the Qatif Today (al-Qatif al-Youm) Android app, an application that provides mobile access to Arabic-language news and information related to the Qatif, Saudi Arabia, an Eastern Province Shia-dominated town that was the site of large anti-government protests in 2011 and 2012. The altered application, if installed on a mobile phone, infects the phone with spyware made by Hacking Team.9
In May 2016, Citizen Lab reported the discovery of a campaign of spyware attacks carried out by a sophisticated operator against Emirati journalists, activists, and dissidents. Though the perpetrator of the attacks was unknown, circumstantial evidence suggested a link with the UAE government.10 In August 2016, Citizen Lab reported that Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor received suspicious text messages on his iPhone promising information about detainees tortured in UAE jails if he clicked on an included link. Citizen lab later said they discovered that clicking on the link would have installed sophisticated spyware on his iPhone produced by an Israeli spyware company that allows an outside operator to control his iPhone's telephone and camera, monitor his chat applications, and track his movements. Similar methods for breaking into iPhones have been valued at one million dollars.11
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries employ laws and regulations containing overly broad and vague provisions that place unduly restrictive limits on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. GCC states have used these laws to arrest, prosecute, and imprison citizens and residents for public advocacy, demonstrations, and online criticism of government policies and leaders.
Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011 all GCC states have expanded existing legislation and promulgated abusive new laws with a view to further curtailing free expression and punishing speech deemed "criminal" by GCC governments, particularly online and via social media networks. In addition to new penal code provisions, GCC governments have enacted repressive new laws and practices on counterterrorism, cybercrimes, peaceful assembly, and citizenship that aim to limit and deter peaceful expression and punish political dissidents and activists who criticize not only their own leaders but those of other GCC states and their policies. The various laws promulgated since 2011 have had a chilling effect on freedom of expression, in some cases branding government critics as "terrorists," or granting authorities the right to strip peaceful protesters and dissidents of their nationality.
All GCC countries maintain and actively employ laws and regulations that criminalize criticizing or "offending" rulers of GCC countries or other government officials.12 Though Saudi Arabia does not have a formal penal code, imposing instead its interpretation of Islamic law, it has nevertheless prosecuted dozens of dissidents under the uncodified charge of "breaking allegiance with the ruler," citing as evidence public criticism of state policy or officials. Similar 'crimes' exist in other GCC countries that carry fines and prison sentences ranging from three months to several years.
Kuwaiti authorities, for example, have prosecuted dozens of peaceful dissidents for online activity since 2011, usually employing provisions such as article 25 of the National Security Law of 1970, which prescribes a sentence of up to five years for anyone who publicly "objects to the rights and authorities of the emir or faults him."13 Authorities also rely on the Penal Code to bring standard defamation charges.14
Bahrain and Oman have altered legislation to provide tougher punishments for insulting GCC leaders or state symbols. In February 2014, Bahraini authorities amended the country's penal code to stiffen penalties for "whoever has insulted, in any kind of public manner, the king of Bahrain, or its flag, or its national emblem," increasing the maximum punishment from three years to seven years in prison and introducing a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini Dinars ($26,500).15 In October 2011 Omani authorities issued amendments to the Penal Code, criminalizing statements that could be considered to undermine the "prestige of the state" (article 135), and providing for a sentence of one month to one year in prison and a fine of up to 200 Omani Riyals ($520) for "anyone participating in a gathering of at least 10 persons, with an intent to affect the public system."16
GCC states also actively curtail free expression through regulations prohibiting defamation of religion, blasphemy, or criticism of Islam or religious symbols.17 Saudi Arabia harshly punishes defamation of religion under uncodified Islamic law, imposing death sentences for apostasy, or in the case of prominent blogger Raif Badawi, ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a "liberal" website and criticizing religious officials.
In the wake of popular uprisings in the Middle East in 2011 as well as regional and local instability, GCC countries have promulgated repressive counterterrorism and emergency laws and regulations that limit free expression and other basic rights. GCC counterterrorism regulations contain vague provisions that can be used to criminalize acts without a person being reasonably able to predict that an act would be a crime and permit draconian criminal procedures that violate a suspect's right to due process of law.
In Bahrain, authorities quashed anti-government protests in March 2011 and established by royal decree a three-month "State of National Safety," akin to a state of emergency. The emergency law provided for the establishment of national safety courts, which repeatedly failed to respect and protect basic fair trial rights of hundreds of dissidents and protesters who were hauled before these judicial bodies.18
In December 2014 Bahraini authorities amended the Law on Protection of the Community against Terrorist Acts, granting authorities the ability to hold suspects up to 28 days without charge and extend the pretrial detention period to seven months.19
In July 2015 Kuwaiti authorities issued a new DNA law as a counterterrorism measure following the bombing of the Imam Sadiq Mosque, which killed 27 people and wounded 227. The law requires all Kuwaiti citizens, foreign residents, and temporary visitors to submit DNA samples to a database that will be maintained and operated by the Interior Ministry. The law, which will affect all 1.3 million Kuwaiti citizens and 2.9 million foreign residents, imposes a penalty of one year in prison and up to $33,000 in fines for anyone who refuses to provide DNA samples. DNA gathering systems like the one Kuwait has written into law violate privacy rights, and various legal regimes have outlawed them for that reason.20
Saudi authorities promulgated a new counterterrorism law in January 2014 containing vague and overly broad provisions that allow authorities to criminalize free expression and give the authorities excessive powers that are not subject to judicial oversight. Among the offenses contained in the law's definition of terrorism is "harming the reputation of the state or its position."21 In March 2014, the Saudi Interior Ministry issued further regulations designating a list of groups the government considers terrorist organizations, as well as other provisions that proscribe acts such as "calling for atheist thought," "throw[ing] away loyalty to the country's rulers," "contact or correspondence with any groups, currents [of thought], or individuals hostile to the kingdom," and participating in or calling for protests or demonstrations.22
In August 2014 the UAE issued a flawed new counterterrorism law that enables courts to convict peaceful government critics as terrorists and sentence them to death. The law broadly defines a "terrorist outcome" as, among other things, "stirring panic among a group of people" and "antagonizing the state, " - without however requiring an intent to cause death or serious injury, or other elements to ensure that peaceful dissent is not labeled "terrorism."23 Article 14 of the law prescribes the death penalty or life in prison for anyone who acts with intent "to undermine the stability, safety, unity, sovereignty, or security of the State" or "to undermine national unity or social peace." Article 15 provides for sentences of between three and 15 years for anyone who "publicly declares his animosity or lack of allegiance to the State or the regime." Article 17, read in conjunction with a provision against proselytism in the penal code, increases the penalty for possession of material that opposes or vilifies the fundamental principles or teachings of Islam from two years to death.24
GCC countries are extremely restrictive in limiting the right to peaceful assembly. In the wake of mass demonstration throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, some GCC countries have moved to legally ban street protests altogether.
In March 2011, at the time of large protests by the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, the Saudi Interior Ministry issued a formal ban on public demonstrations.25 Though there are no written criminal penalties for such an offense, Saudi judges have issued harsh sentences for protest-related crimes, including the death penalty.26
In July 2013, facing the prospect of another round of protests, Bahraini authorities announced a series of new restrictions on basic freedoms, including an indefinite ban on all public gatherings in the capital, Manama.27 Bahraini authorities subsequently amended legislation to enforce these actions, including immediate amendments to the Law on Public Gatherings and Demonstrations banning protests in the capital.
The spread of the internet and social networking applications offered GCC citizens and residents the ability to circumvent state censorship and express taboo or sensitive subjects in a public forum for the first time. As these technologies expanded and rendered old censorship regimes obsolete, GCC countries responded by issuing cybercrime laws containing vague provisions to limit peaceful online speech.
Oman and Saudi Arabia issued laws covering "information crimes" in 2002 and 2007, respectively, each of which contained vague provisions that both states have employed to limit online speech that harms "public morals" or "public order." Oman's Telecommunications Law of 2002, for example, prior to its amendment in 2007, criminalized sending "by means of telecommunications system, a message that violates public order or public morals … [or] aims to disturb others" and carried punishments of up to one year in prison and fine of up to 1,000 Omani Riyals ($2,600).28 Article 6 of Saudi Arabia's Anti-Information Crimes Law criminalizes producing, storing, or sending via an information network any material that "harms public order, religious values, public morals, [or] the sanctity of private life" and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Saudi Riyals ($800,000). 29) Authorities later amended the law to prohibit insulting the country’s grand mufti, Senior Council of Religious Scholars, or government employees.
Omani responded to popular protests and critical online activity in February 2011 by issuing a new Cybercrimes law. Article 19 of the law provides for a sentence of one month to three years in prison and 1,000 to 3,000 Omani Riyals ($2,600-$7,800) for "any person who uses an informational network or information technology facilities to produce or publish or distribute or purchase or possess whatsoever that might prejudice the public order or religious values."30 This provision largely mirrors Article 61 of the 2002 Telecommunications Act, but strengthens the original punishment of one year in prison and a fine of up to 1,000 Riyals ($2,600).31
In November 2012 the UAE expanded its suppression of online criticism by issuing Federal Legal Decree No. 5/ 2012 on combating cybercrimes. The UAE cybercrime law goes beyond the scope of other GCC cybercrime laws, which criminalize speech deemed to violate broad categories such as "public order" or "religious values." In contrast, the UAE law specifically prohibits the use of information technology "with the intent of inciting to actions, or publishing or disseminating any information, news, caricatures, or other images liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on the public order" (art. 28), carrying a punishment of imprisonment and a fine of up to 1 million dirhams (US$272,000).32 The same punishment is prescribed for "deriding or harming the reputation, stature, or status of the state, any of its institutions, its president or vice president, the rulers of the emirates, their crown princes or their deputies, the state flag, national safety, its motto, its national anthem, or its symbols" (art. 29).33 Article 30 of the cybercrime law provides a sentence of up to life in prison for anyone using such means "to advocate the overthrow, change, or usurpation of the system of governance in the state, or obstruct provisions of the constitution or existing law, or oppose the fundamental principles on which the system of governance is based." It also provides the same sentence for anyone who incites or facilitates these acts.34
Human Rights Watch has documented fewer cases of arrests and prosecutions of peaceful dissidents and activists by Qatar than by its GCC neighbors. Qatar has nonetheless promulgated new laws aimed at curbing free expression. In September 2014, Qatari authorities issued the Cybercrime Prevention Law, which provides for a penalty of three years in jail and a fine of 500,000 Qatari Riyals for anyone who "sets up or runs a website to disseminate false news to threaten the safety and security of the State or its public order or domestic and foreign security."35 The law also provides for a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a fine of 100,000 Qatari Riyals for anyone who, using information technology, "violates social principles."36
Kuwaiti authorities targeted online expression by issuing a Law on Combatting Cybercrimes in June 2015.37 Article 6 of the cybercrime law imposes prison sentences and fines for insulting religion and religious figures, and for criticizing the emir over the internet. Article 6 also prohibits internet-based statements deemed to criticize the judicial system or harm Kuwait's relations with other states, or that publicize classified information, without exceptions for disclosures in the public interest. Article 7 imposes a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for using the internet to "overthrow the ruling regime in the country when this instigation included an enticement to change the system by force or through illegal means, or by urging to use force to change the social and economic system that exists in the country, or to adopt creeds that aim at destroying the basic statutes of Kuwait through illegal means."38
Since 2011 GCC countries have increasingly used citizenship revocation as a tool to curb political dissent. Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE in particular have stepped up removals of citizenship from groups of citizens, including political dissidents and online activists, many of whom were rendered stateless.
In December 2011 the UAE announced through its official news agency that it had stripped six men of their UAE citizenship for "acts posing a threat to the state's security and safety." All six were members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah), a non-profit organization that advocates greater adherence to Islamic precepts, which has been engaged in peaceful political debate and discussion in the UAE for many years.39 In March 2016 the UAE revoked the citizenship of two daughters and a son of imprisoned political dissident Mohammed Abdulraziq Al-Siddiq, who is serving a ten-year sentence following his conviction on charges stemming from peaceful political activities.40 Under UAE law, to strip a person's citizenship, the Interior Ministry is first required to set out the intention and reasoning in a letter to the Council of Ministers. If the Council of Ministers approves the reasoning, the letter is passed to the UAE president. If he approves, he issues a decree setting out the measures taken, which are then formalized with publication in the official gazette. Although the law does not provide for an automatic right to appeal, the decisions may be challenged in court.41
In July 2014 Bahraini authorities amended the Citizenship Law to grant the Interior Ministry additional authority to revoke citizenship of people who fail in their "duty of loyalty" to the state, a vaguely worded provision that has been used to revoke the citizenship of government critics. Bahrain removed citizenship from 31 individuals in November 2012, allegedly for damaging state security.42 In December 2015 a Bahraini court of appeal upheld the decision to strip eight members of this group of their citizenship, ruling that the authorities can exercise their discretion and need not provide "specific means of proof" when revoking the citizenship of nationals who "cause harm to the state" or fail in their "duty of loyalty" to it.43 In 2015 authorities stripped 208 Bahrainis of their citizenship. They can be classified into three broad categories: human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, former members of parliament, doctors, and religious scholars; Bahrainis known to be fighting alongside the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in Iraq and Syria; and individuals convicted of domestic terrorism offenses.44 Bahrain's courts play a key role in maintaining the country's highly repressive political order and the Supreme Appellate Court held in September 2012 that terrorism need not involve the use or threat of violence but can be the result of "moral pressure."45
In 2014 Kuwait announced three separate batches of citizenship revocations that totaled 33 individual cases, of which local activists believe three were for political reasons. Kuwait's Law of Nationality empowers the authorities to strip individuals and their dependents of their Kuwaiti citizenship on several grounds, including if it "involves the higher interests of the state or its foreign security," or the authorities consider that the individual has "promoted principles that will undermine the social or economic system of the country." Revocation decisions are not subject to any judicial or administrative appeals process.
GCC Legal Changes/Social Media Expansion Timeline:
March: Omani Telecommunications Law
February 2005: Launch of YouTube
July: Launch of Twitter
September: Facebook opened to GCC Citizens and Residents
March: Saudi Law on Combating Information Crimes
January: Launch of WhatsApp
February: Omani Cybercrime Law
March: Saudi Ministry of Interior Ban on Public Protests
March: Bahrain National Safety Law
May: Amendments to Omani Criminal Procedures Law
June: Expiry of Bahrain National Safety Law
October: Amendments to Omani Penal Code (harming prestige of the state, gathering to affect the public system)
November: UAE Cybercrime Law
January: Saudi Law on Terrorism Crimes and Financing
March: Saudi Ministry of Interior Counterterrorism Regulations
August: Launch of Telegram Messenger
August: Bahraini parliamentary recommendations calling for restrictions on freedom of expression, an indefinite ban on all public gatherings in Manama, revocation of citizenship of Bahrainis convicted of terrorism offenses
August: Amendments to Bahraini Law on Public Gatherings and Demonstrations
February: Amendments to Bahraini Penal Code (increasing penalty for insulting the king)
July: Launch of Signal
July: Amendments to Bahraini Citizenship Law
August: UAE Law on Combating Terrorism Offences
September: Qatari Cybercrime Prevention Law
December: Amendments to Bahraini Law on Protection of the Community against Terrorist Acts
June: Kuwaiti Law on Combating Cybercrimes
July: Kuwaiti Law on DNA
Freedom of Expression
GCC countries' repression of political dissidents and civil society activists based solely on their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression violates international human rights obligations. Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which all GCC countries other than Oman have ratified, guarantees "the right to information and to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium, regardless of geographical boundaries."46
Bahrain and Kuwait are the only GCC countries that have signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The other GCC states are among the very few countries in the world that have neither signed nor ratified the ICCPR. Nonetheless, the covenant constitutes an authoritative source and guideline reflecting international best practice. Article 19 of the ICCPR imposes legal obligations on states to protect freedom of expression, stating "[E]veryone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds..."47
The ICCPR permits governments to impose certain restrictions or limitations on freedom of expression only if such restriction is provided by law and is necessary: (a) for respect of the rights or reputations of others; or (b) for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.48
The UN Human Rights Committee, which provides authoritative interpretation of the ICCPR, wrote in General Comment 34: "Restrictive measures must conform to the principle of proportionality; they must be appropriate to achieve their protective function; they must be the least intrusive instrument amongst those which might achieve their protective function; they must be proportionate to the interest to be protected." The committee also stated that such restrictions "may never be invoked as a justification for the muzzling of any advocacy of multi-party democracy, democratic tenets, and human rights."49
The use of vague laws by GCC countries that provide blanket prohibitions on criticism of public officials, institutions, or religion violate international standards by going beyond permissible restrictions on expression. GCC states have not, as the ICCPR and international best practice require, shown in specific and individualized fashion how such blanket prohibitions of various types of criticism are necessary and proportional to the perceived threat posed by the expression.
In addition, General Comment 34 states that "in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high." It also states that "states parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration." Furthermore, General Comment 34 states that "[p]rohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant."50
GCC authorities sometimes declare that peaceful criticism or activism is "inciting violence or sectarian hatred" as the rationale for restricting protected expression. Article 20 of the ICCPR prohibits, "Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence."51 GCC authorities, however, rarely if ever demonstrate a direct link between a statement and any violence or incitement perpetrated as a result of the statement. More often, GCC states employ vague laws and apply them in an arbitrary manner in an effort to curb protected expression, using "incitement to hatred" or "incitement to sectarianism" as an unjustified pretext. Though some expression may be intolerant or critical of other religious groups, given the dangers of suppressing legitimate expression, especially by GCC countries that regularly jail peaceful activists and critics, expression that falls short of incitement should be countered through affirmative or non-punitive measures by GCC states, such as public education, promotion of tolerance, or publicly countering libelous or incendiary misinformation, rather than suppressed altogether.
Revocation of Citizenship
GCC governments' revocation of citizenship from GCC citizens in retaliation for public criticism or peaceful dissident activity violates international human rights standards. Under article 29 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which all GCC countries but Oman have signed and ratified, "[e]veryone has the right to nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived of his nationality."52 In December 2013 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon issued an authoritative report setting out criteria for determining the lawfulness of any country's decision to revoke the citizenship of one of its nationals. The report accepted revocation as legitimate for "rendering of services to a foreign government or military force" or committing acts "seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the State."53
The report concluded, however, that revoking a citizen's nationality for exercising the right to freedom of speech amounts to a violation of human rights guaranteed under international law. International law strictly limits the circumstances in which loss or deprivation of nationality leading to statelessness can be recognized as serving a legitimate purpose. When a country revokes a person's citizenship, it may be required to provide a right of residence in the country.
The secretary-general's report makes it clear that all revocation decisions must be subject to administrative or judicial review. Extending the revocation of citizenship to the dependents of a person whose citizenship has been legitimately revoked is described as "problematic" in the UN report, whereas it is explicitly prohibited if such loss or deprivation of nationality would render the dependents stateless.
- Release all prisoners held solely for their peaceful practice of their rights to free expression and association, including prisoners convicted of alleged crimes, prisoners currently on trial, and prisoners held arbitrarily;
- Halt all acts of intimidation, harassment, and smear campaigns against rights activists and political dissidents, including those carried out by individuals invested with or claiming religious authority;
- Revoke Penal Code articles and other criminal legislation used to prosecute individuals for the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association, or peaceful assembly, or amend such articles so that they comply with international law.
- Review all laws in the area of cybercrime, information and communications technology (ICT), and telecommunications to ensure their compliance with international human rights standards. In particular, those laws and regulations that have been used in the past to prosecute persons in violation of their fundamental rights should be urgently repealed.
- Review all laws in the area of counterterrorism to ensure their compliance with international human rights standards. In particular, those laws and regulations that have been used in the past to prosecute persons in violation of their fundamental rights should be urgently repealed.
- Ensure that all criminal trials are open to the public, including civil society organizations, except to the extent that restrictions on access to limited parts of a trial are permitted by international law.
- Halt the imposition of arbitrary travel bans without justification or notification;
- Hall arbitrary withdrawals of citizenship in retaliation for peaceful criticism and provide judicial remedies for those who have faced withdrawal of citizenship;
- Do not collude with GCC governments in censoring political speech or helping them retaliate against social media users who want to benefit from the openness and connectivity that social media promotes.
- Assess human rights risks raised by potential business activity, including risk posed to the rights of freedom of expression, access to information, association, and privacy.
- Develop strategies to mitigate the risk of abuses linked to business operations and new contracts, including by incorporating human rights safeguards into business agreements and terms of service. Such strategies should be consistent with the Global Network Initiative (GNI) principles and the United Nations "Protect, Respect, and Remedy" Framework for business and human rights.
- For sellers of surveillance technologies like intrusion software, assess the risk that products or services sold to governments may be used to facilitate illegal surveillance and other human rights abuses, as well as the risk of providing training or customization services for specific law enforcement, intelligence, and security agency customers.
- For sellers of surveillance technologies, as part of a tender or contract negotiation process, inquire about the end use and end users of the products or services being provided.
- For sellers of surveillance technologies, adopt policies and procedures to stop or address misuse of products and services, including contractual provisions that designate end use and end users, the violation of which would allow the company to withdraw services or cease technical support or upgrades. Such policies should also extend to the actions of resellers, distributors, and other business partners. Promptly investigate any misuse of products or services and take concrete steps to address human rights abuses linked to business operations.
- For social media companies, adopt human rights policies outlining how the company will resist government requests for censorship or user data, including procedures for narrowing requests that may be disproportionate or challenge requests not supported by law.
- For social media companies, maximize transparency to users regarding government requests for censorship or user data, including through aggregate transparency reports and specific notice to users whose rights are implicated by such requests.
- Advocate for reform of surveillance, cybercrime, and censorship laws to bring them in line with international human rights standards.
- Regulate the sale of intrusive surveillance technologies, including by requiring that companies subject to national jurisdiction operating abroad report on human rights policies and due diligence activity designed to prevent abuses.
- Incorporate human rights standards in assessment criteria when reviewing export license applications for intrusive surveillance technologies, including an assessment of the human rights situation in destination country, the adequacy of the legal framework governing the use of the technology in the destination country, and the human rights record of the end user.
- Increase transparency around the surveillance technology industry by releasing national data on export licensing.
In mid-February 2011 hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis participated in largely peaceful demonstrations against the government, inspired by similar protests sweeping the Arab world at the time.54 Authorities responded with lethal force, killing six individuals in the first three days of the protests.55 In mid-March Bahraini troops and riot police, backed by armed forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, violently brought an end to several weeks of mostly peaceful pro-democracy and anti-government street protests. Authorities then began a campaign of judicial and administrative retribution against demonstrators, opposition leaders, peaceful critics, and rights activists.56
Authorities tightened restrictions on the right to freedom of information, blocking numerous websites, including those of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain-On-Line discussion forum, as well as publications, including those of legally recognized opposition political societies.57Authorities arrested journalists and bloggers, and forced the resignation of the editors of the country's one independent newspaper, Al Wasat.58
In June 2011 a military court convicted 21 high-profile opposition leaders and activists on charges that included broadcasting "false and tendentious news and rumors," promoting the replacement of Bahrain's monarchy with a republican form of government, and "inciting" people to engage in demonstrations and marches.59
In July 2011 King Hamad established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), comprising five international jurists headed by Cherif Bassiouni. BICI's mandate was to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in connection with the government's suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in February and March 2011, although the report did include details of deaths that occurred outside its temporal mandate. On November 23, 2011 the BICI released an approximately 500-page report detailing its findings; it released final revisions to the report on December 10, 2011. 60
Among many of its recommendations were that the Bahraini authorities should review the convictions and commute the sentences of all persons charged with offences involving political expression not consisting of advocating violence.61 One of the BICI commissioners, Sir Nigel Rodley, clarified that this recommendation meant that anyone imprisoned for exercising their rights should be released and their criminal records expunged of these charges.62With regard to the torture of detainees, the BICI report also found "a more discernible pattern of mistreatment" with regard to high-profile political leaders and concluded that the purpose of the mistreatment was either to obtain incriminating statements of confessions or for the purposes of retribution and punishment.63
In November 2011 King Hamad accepted the BICI's findings, saying that the government would take the findings and recommendations "to heart" and that they "must be dealt with urgently."64However, in September 2012 Bahrain's Supreme Appellate Court upheld the convictions of the high-profile activists, ruling that their efforts in support of political reform constituted terrorism, because terrorism "can be the result of moral pressure."65
Since the release of the BICI report, the government of Bahrain has continued to violate its citizens' right to freedom of expression, targeting rights activists, political opposition leaders, and journalists.
Since 2011 Bahrain has restricted access to the country for dozens of organizations and press outlets. According to Bahrain Watch, since February 2011 there have been at least 221 instances in which a "foreign journalist, NGO member, politician, trade unionist, aid worker, or activist was denied access to Bahrain, alone or as part of a group."66 In May 2011, Bahrain authorities expelled Reuters correspondent Frederik Richter in response to his reporting on the government's crackdown on street protests.67 In February 2016, Bahrain authorities arrested and held four American journalists overnight for attempting to cover ongoing protests in Bahrain.68
Amidst the Arab uprisings that swept the region in 2011 there were also popular protests in Kuwait focusing on allegations of corruption in high government echelons.100 These led to the dissolution of the National Assembly and elections in February 2012 in which opposition candidates gained a majority of seats.101
Facing mounting political pressure, the emir or ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, suspended parliament for one month in June. The Constitutional Court then nullified the elections and reinstated the parliament of 2009. This prompted further protests across the country.102
To restrict the power of the opposition, the emir issued a royal decree in October 2012 that altered the country's election law.103 More anti-government protests followed, the largest the country had yet seen. In reaction, the government has gradually increased suppression of opposition activists and government critics.104
Elections held in December 2012 were boycotted by the opposition and then again annulled by the Constitutional Court in June 2013.105 New elections followed on July 27, 2013 and led to the appointment of the incumbent Prime Minister, Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamd al-Sabah.
While the scale of protests has declined since 2012, prosecutions on various grounds of those critical of the government has continued and the country's political system remains fragile.106
In February 2011 Omanis took to the streets in cities throughout the country demanding jobs, an end to corruption, and the dismissal of senior officials perceived to be corrupt. Police and security forces initially tolerated the largely peaceful protests. On February 27, 2011, they used tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition against protesters who attacked and burned a police station in the northern coastal town of Sohar. Police shot dead one protester in February and another in April.147
In May 2012, Omani authorities launched an assault on freedoms of expression and association through mass arrests and trials of peaceful online activists and demonstrators.
The crackdown began when police detained human rights activists Isma`il al-Meqbali, Habiba al-Hana'i, and Ya`coub al-Khorousi as they were traveling to the Fohoud oil field to interview striking oil workers. All three are founding members of the independent Omani Group for Human Rights. Authorities denied the men access to their families and lawyers for several days, eventually releasing al-Hana'i and al-Khorousi while holding al-Meqbali to investigate potential charges.148
Over the following weeks, authorities detained a group of 10 pro-reform activists allegedly for Facebook and Twitter comments critical of Omani authorities. By the end of July, authorities had arrested another 22 online activists on the basis of alleged defamatory Facebook and Twitter comments. The public prosecutor charged 31 of the detained activists with "defaming the Sultan," based on article 126 of Oman's penal code, and violating provisions of Oman's Information Crimes Law. One faced the sole charge of "defaming the Sultan." Following a series of group trials during July, August, and September, the Muscat Court of First Instance convicted 29 of the activists and sentenced them to between 6 and 18 months in prison and fines ranging from 200 to 1,000 Omani Riyals (US$520-$2,600). All were eventually pardoned by Sultan Qaboos in March 2013.149
Since then, authorities have engaged in a cycle of prosecutions of peaceful activists and critics, including social media activists, leading to prison sentences followed by release under pardons granted by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. Officials typically arrest pro-reform activists and hold them without access to lawyers and their families using a 2011 criminal procedure code amendment that empowers security forces to hold detainees without charge for up to 30 days. According to local activists, the arrests and prosecutions have had a chilling effect on free speech and the expression of dissent in Oman.150
On September 13, 2014 Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association, issued a statement after his first country visit to Oman in which he noted a "pervasive culture of silence and fear affecting anyone who wants to speak and work for reforms." He said the authorities should urgently repeal or amend "laws which have a detrimental impact on the exercise of peaceful assembly and association rights."151
In December 2014 Omani officials told Human Rights Watch that authorities had arrested approximately 41 individuals since 2011 for speech-related activities, and that 37 of them were eventually convicted by the judiciary.152 The officials said that Sultan Qaboos pardoned all of them on March 22, 2013.153
Qatar has experienced none of the street protests witnessed in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman, or even the online petitioning that elicited a crackdown in the United Arab Emirates. But the country unmistakably shares the authoritarian character of its neighbours, as is evident from draconian new laws and the punitive responses to the limited public dissent that has occurred.
Qatar's constitution guarantees freedom of the press, publications and printing and the right of individuals to address public authorities.170 It also guarantees freedom of expression, but with the caveat that such freedom should be "in accordance with the conditions and circumstances set forth in the law."171
One vocal and consistent critic of the government, the academic Ali Khalifa al-Kuwari, who wrote the book, "The People Want Reform … in Qatar Too", has remained at liberty, although Qatar's internet service provider has blocked his blog. Regular majlis (common interest group) gatherings in the homes of prominent individuals often host speakers who address issues like foreign policy and health care, but generally steer clear of internal political matters, including the concentration of power in the hands of the ruling Al Thani.172
Qatar has an active local media that has not shied away from addressing contentious issues. The state-funded broadcasting company Al Jazeera began broadcasting in 1996 and Al Jazeera English launched in 2006. Al Jazeera's Arabic channel does not broadcast critically about Qatar or neighbouring countries, but Al Jazeera English has covered developments in Bahrain and has been at the forefront of international media reporting of the issue of migrant workers' rights, including in Qatar.173
The quasi-governmental Qatar Foundation was involved in setting up the Doha Center for Media Freedom in 2008. The center describes itself as a non-profit organisation that works for press freedom in Qatar and elsewhere. After the resignation of its first director in 2009, however, the former director said in a statement that the Qatari authorities, "did everything possible to prevent the Center from being independent" and that "[he] and his staff were targeted as soon as they criticized press freedom violations in Qatar."174
Civil society and human rights activists in Saudi Arabia are struggling for greater popular political participation, judicial reform, and an end to discrimination against women and minorities. Since 2011 Saudi authorities have responded with a campaign of repression against rights defenders, quashing calls for change, and preventing the development of an opposition movement.
Many Saudi activists have used social media and online forums to initiate campaigns and build networks, which have been a major feature of rights activism in Saudi Arabia since 2009. Tens of thousands of Saudi citizens have participated in online campaigns, such as a campaign to free Samar Badawi, a woman jailed for seven months in 2010 for "parental disobedience" according to a judge's interpretation of Islamic law, and Saudi women have launched advocacy campaigns encouraging Saudi women to drive in defiance of the government ban on women driving.176
The Arab uprisings in 2011 encouraged activists to move beyond online campaigning and organize small demonstrations and sit-ins in the streets. In Riyadh and Buraydah, families of detainees held for years without charge began holding demonstrations outside Ministry of Interior buildings and detention facilities, calling on authorities to either release or try their family members.177 In the eastern cities of Qatif and Awammiyah, where the majority of the population are Shia Muslims, demonstrators called for greater religious freedoms and an end to institutionalized discrimination against the country's Shia minority.178 Prominent political and intellectual figures circulated petitions requesting the then-king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, to implement judicial reforms and release political detainees.179
In response to growing opposition and the development of a human rights community, Saudi authorities have harassed, intimidated, and attempted to silence all criticism, especially since early 2011, including through travel bans, smear campaigns, as well as detentions and prosecutions.180
Saudi courts have tried, convicted, and sentenced at least twenty prominent activists and dissidents since 2011. Most faced broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent, such as "breaking allegiance with the ruler," "sowing discord," "inciting public opinion," "setting up an unlicensed organization," as well as vague provisions from the 2007 cybercrime law. The courts have sentenced peaceful dissidents to exceptionally long prison sentences of 10 to 15 years based solely on peaceful criticism.181
Since 2014 Saudi authorities have tried nearly all peaceful dissidents in the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia's terrorism tribunal.
Authorities have arrested and prosecuted nearly all activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of Saudi Arabia's first civic organizations, which grounded calls for broad political reform in interpretations of Islamic law. A Saudi court formally dissolved and banned the group in March 2013.182 All the association's activists faced similar vague charges, which included disparaging and insulting judicial authorities, inciting public opinion, insulting religious leaders, participating in setting up an unlicensed organization, and violating the cybercrime law.183
Saudi Arabia's treatment of peaceful activists and dissidents contrasts in some cases with its treatment of defendants accused of committing acts of violence or fighting with extremist groups abroad, some of whom are permitted to enter a "rehabilitation" program in lieu of prosecution.184
United Arab Emirates
In March 2011 as anti-government protests continued in several Arab countries, 133 citizens of the United Arab Emirates signed a petition requesting that the Federal National Council, whose mandate is to provide for public debate of legislation, be elected by universal suffrage and given legislative powers.211 The authorities responded with an assault on freedom of expression and association.
In April 2011 authorities arrested five activists, known as the "UAE 5," after they allegedly posted statements on the internet forum Al-Hewar Al-Emarati (Emirati Dialogue), which authorities blocked in 2010. All of the UAE 5 previously signed the March petition calling for greater democracy in the Emirates. After the Federal Supreme Court convicted them of "insults" to the country's top officials in November, the UAE's president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, commuted their prison sentences.212
In April 2011 UAE authorities disbanded the elected boards of the Jurists Association and the Teachers' Association after they and two other nongovernmental organizations co-signed a public appeal in April calling for greater democracy in the country. 213
In July 2012 the authorities intensified a crackdown on dissidents with alleged ties to an Islamist group, al-Islah.214 Whereas in 2011 the "UAE 5" activists had faced charges that clearly related to the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, the 2012 crackdown on dissidents with alleged ties to al-Islah was framed in terms of national security.215
The mass trial of 94 defendants for alleged links with al-Islah, known as the "UAE 94" trial began on March 4, 2013 on charges that they had been part of a group that aimed to overthrow the country's political system.216 Authorities detained 64 of the men and held them at undisclosed locations for up to a year before the trial, and defendants later claimed in court that they had been ill-treated in detention.217 The UAE Federal Supreme Court found 69 of the 94 defendants guilty on July 2, 2013.218
UAE authorities have also used citizenship revocation as a tool to punish peaceful dissidents and critics. In December 2011 the UAE announced through its official news agency that it had stripped six men of their UAE citizenship for "acts posing a threat to the state's security and safety" based on their membership in al-Islah.219 In March 2016 the UAE revoked the citizenship of two daughters and a son of imprisoned political dissident Mohammed Abdulraziq Al-Siddiq, who is serving a ten-year sentence following his conviction on charges stemming from peaceful political activities.