His Royal Highness in Bahrain is apparently very sensitive when it comes to online chatter about him.
For the first time, the King’s handlers have arrested Twitter users for criticizing the King — something that is an actual crime in the tiny island kingdom in the Persian Gulf which is a close ally of the United States and home to America’s largest foreign naval base which hosts the Fifth Fleet.
Following an October 16 raid on their homes, this week three of the four people raided have received their sentences for breaking the law of criticizing the King of Bahrain: Abdullah AlHashemi (6 months prison), Ali Mohamed Watheq (4 months prison) and Salman Darwish (1 month). The fourth man, Ali AlHayki, is expected to receive his verdict on November 12 and according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, “the Ministry of Information announced the search for a fifth defendant,” too.
“They’re basically just sending a message across the spectrum that the king is a red line,” says Maryam AlKhawaja, Acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
The trouble is, no one in Bahrain — including the government, apparently — knows where the red line is. Though there actually is a law against “criticizing the King or holding him responsible for any of the government’s actions,” it is in the Press Rules and Regulations Code of 2002. Online media is not explicitly covered in this Code, neither is social media.
“We don’t have any laws for tweets,” says Ali Al Aswad, a former MP with the island’s main opposition party, Al Wefaq, who resigned in February 2011 as part of a mass resignation of the party’s MP’s over concerns about the crackdown that began then as
part of Bahrain’s Arab Spring.
“I don’t know why the courts sentenced these four because they were writing on Twitter,” Al Aswad says, adding, “I feel they have not been jailed or interrogated because of these tweets only, they were talking about human rights, democracy, and in between they did tweets about the King.”
The curious thing about this particular case is not merely that the King is now clearly going after Tweeple — as some Twitter users refer to themselves — but that one of the four young men — all in their 20′s — who were arrested is actually on the King’s side in his efforts to silence the public protesters who have overtaken the streets and squares of Bahrain’s Arab Spring.
“He was arrested because he was criticizing the King for not being harsh enough against what he called the shia traitors,” AlKhawaja says.
The King, it seems, doesn’t even care if you support what many refer to as his human rights violations. He simply cannot bear any criticism, at all — even when it is by low profile tweeple with few followers.
“If you say to the King ‘I’m with you, I love you, I will do whatever you say, but…’ — once you say ‘but’ this means you are opposition,” Al Aswad says.
“Whoever is in opposition to the authority in Bahrain will be sentenced or in jail regardless if they are followers, sunni, shia, Christian — they don’t care.”
This is not the first time the King or other high level government officials have taken harsh measures against people who criticize them online, however. The most high-profile case was the August 2012 verdict of three years imprisonment for high profile activist Nabeel Rajab – later overturned in appeals court after he had already spent three months in prison — whose alleged crime was criticizing the Prime Minister.
And before that, a prominent blogger, Ali Abdulemam, was disappeared for his criticism of the government. His whereabouts have not been known since March 18, 2011, according to the Center.
AlKhawaja says that apart from adding to the King and the government’s long list of human rights violations, these types of arrests and disappearances are actually counterproductive to the government’s goal of silencing what have become increasingly embarrassing incidents of public protest.
“What the Bahraini regime is very slow in understanding is that when they go after people it actually creates more dissent, it doesn’t lessen it,” she says.
Though the dissent in Bahrain is increasing and protester deaths are mounting, major Western allies like the United States, United Kingdom and France who have quite vocally supported Arab Spring people’s movements across the region, have remained noticeably silent when it comes to Bahrain, and have even contributed to the King’s efforts to quash peaceful public protest.
“We’re still seeing these countries selling arms to Bahrain at a time when they’ve offered no reforms. We’re still seeing them do business as usual with Bahrain,” says AlKhawaja, suggesting that military and financial incentives with regard to Bahrain have taken precedence over support for a movement for progressive change.