Hasan Jamali/AP

'Significant ramping' of political repression in the Gulf, activists warn

Post-Arab Spring oppression increasingly involves harsh penalties for dissent, including torture, stripping citizenship

Just before his most recent arrest Nabeel Rajab, the prominent Bahraini human rights activist, captured his outrage over what many believe are politicized charges in a defiant video message.

“This steadfastness and fighting for human rights will continue,” Rajab announced.

On Twitter, his profile picture is a cartoon image of himself with tape over his mouth and the words “Human rights are not allowed in Bahrain.” His detention was extended for 15 days on Saturday following his April 2 arrest for seeking to “incite public unrest and public defamation.” 

The U.S. government last week urged the authorities in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, to drop the charges against Rajab and immediately release him.

On Oct. 1, 2014, Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested on other charges but was released on bail pending an appeal. In that case, he was sentenced to six months in prison for a tweet he wrote accusing Bahrain’s powerful security services of playing a role in support of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

Rajab got himself into hot water this month by penning an op-ed and publishing tweets that claimed detainees at Bahrain’s Jaw Prison have been tortured. He has continued to speak out, even penning an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, published by The New York Times, in which he urged Obama “to defend our right to free speech when you meet with the monarchs of the Gulf.”

Last week his organization tweeted that Rajab’s home was raided and all his electronic devices were confiscated.

Cases such as Rajab’s have become increasingly common in Bahrain. Since the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011, pro-democracy protests have periodically flared up, encouraging long-suffering dissidents — many from the underrepresented Shia majority — to challenge the prevailing political order of the Sunni monarchy. In one high-profile case, politician Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested two days after he was re-elected in December 2014 as the secretary-general of the country’s main opposition party, Al Wefaq. He was held on charges of trying to incite regime change, among others, and was denied bail in late January.

Bahrain is not alone in cracking down on dissent in this way. Freedom of expression has long been heavily restricted in much of the Gulf, and human rights activists frequently targeted for government reprisal. Over the past four years, Gulf monarchs have dealt with the political ferment sweeping the region by issuing laws used to criminalize and punish dissent. Activists and dissidents have been imprisoned or stripped of citizenship in cases that have been widely condemned for failing to meet the minimum standards of justice.

There is a “significant ramping” up of political repression in the region, said Christopher Davidson, an expert on the Gulf monarchies who teaches at Durham University. “[For Gulf monarchies] increasingly uncomfortable with any form of criticism in this post-Arab Spring and Internet-empowered age of communications, the current climate of anti-ISIS counterterror operations — which most of these states have nominally contributed to thwarting — has presented a golden opportunity to revert back to post-9/11 style crackdowns,” he said via email.

As for liberal activists like Rajab, Davidson said, “it’s also an opportunity to clean them out.” The West, he said, “which ordinarily would have to condemn their allies for such arrests, more or less has to stay silent due to its reliance on these moderate states in their anti-ISIS coalition.”

‘[For Gulf monarchies] increasingly uncomfortable with any form of criticism in this post–Arab Spring and Internet-empowered age of communications, the current climate of anti-ISIS counterterror operations … has presented a golden opportunity.’

Christopher Davidson

professor, Durham University

The United Arab Emirates is holding at least 120 political prisoners, among them citizens and foreigners, according to the Emirates Center for Human Rights. That number includes 61 prisoners who were part of the UAE 94 case, a mass trial in March 2013 in which 94 people were charged with trying to overthrow the government –– a charge they denied.

The trial resulted in the convictions of 69 people — eight in absentia — who received sentences of up to 15 years. Among the jailed were judges and lawyers, including Mohammed al-Roken, prominent for his human rights work, and student blogger Khalifa al-Nuaimi.

The prisoners were allegedly tortured. One claims he had his fingernails pulled out, another’s shoulder was dislocated when he was reportedly attacked by a guard, and two prisoners separately reported being locked in car trunks — one of whom almost choked to death from gas fumes, according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights. Prisoners were not allowed to meet privately with their lawyers.

UAE authorities did not respond to Al Jazeera’s query about the allegations of prisoner abuse.

“Political liberty and freedom of expression are not at their best” in the UAE right now, said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, an Emirati political scientist. The same is true throughout the Gulf region, which is in a “tough neighborhood” with a “tough security” situation, he added.

Like Bahrain, the UAE has passed recent laws under which opposition figures have been targeted. The UAE Anti-Terrorism Law was approved in August 2014. Then late last year the UAE designated 83 groups as terrorist organizations, including ISIL, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Boko Haram and the Houthis in Yemen. But the law, which prescribes the death penalty for certain terrorism charges, also includes an expansive definition of terrorism that is “deeply flawed,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Gulf governments argue that “it’s a jungle out there,” said Abdullah, adding that when the abnormal regional conditions improve, the climate for free expression will improve. Though it has been clear for more than 20 years that the Gulf countries need to address political representation and freedom of expression, he said, the “forces of status quo are stronger than the forces of change.”

The revocation of citizenship remains a common tactic by regimes across the region. In 2013, Bahrain’s King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa passed tougher penalties that allowed citizens to be stripped of their nationality if guilty of a terrorist act. In 2014, Kuwait revoked the citizenship of dozens of people, including Hamed Jabr al-Shemmeri, the owner of television channel Al-Yawn and newspaper Al-Alam Al-Yawm — media outlets that sided with the opposition. According to the state-run news agency, the actions against Shemmeri, whose family members’ citizenships were also revoked, were “measures to impose security and stability as well as ensure the rule of law on everyone.”

Increasing use of the Internet appears to be a factor behind proliferating dissent in the Gulf, said a recent Chatham House report, ”Future Trends in the Gulf.”

“The global trend of far greater freedom of information has a particularly pronounced impact in countries where the media were previously tightly controlled by the state, as in the Gulf,” its authors wrote. “Young people are exposed to a far greater diversity of ideas than were their parents. Social media, hugely popular in the Gulf states, are normalizing the public expression and participatory debate of views.”

“Gulf regimes, which are not particularly ideological, could again be flexible enough to co-opt new social groups and adapt to changing popular expectations,” the report stated. “What is striking today is that several GCC countries have faced significant protests and opposition mobilization, even at a time of plenty.”

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