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Portraits of activists in Bahrain.  © 2016 Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Bahrain’s interior minister has threatened to crackdown on dissidents and activists who criticize the government online, Human Rights Watch said today.

Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa, the interior minister, said on March 25, 2018, that the government was already tracking accounts that “departed from national norms, customs and traditions,” and threatened unspecified new legislation and heavy punishments against “violators.”

“No one can mistake the government’s latest assault on the shrinking space for dissent,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “A vow to punish those who ‘depart from national norms and customs’ is clearly aimed at anyone who criticizes the government’s policies.”

Bahraini authorities have gone after scores of activists, journalists, and photographers since nationwide anti-government protests in 2011. People targeted as dissenters have been harassed, imprisoned, ill-treated, arbitrarily stripped of their nationality, and forced into exile. The authorities have also prosecuted family members of activists in trials tainted by dubious terror-related charges and due-process concerns.

Human Rights Watch has documented how Bahraini authorities already actively police and punish online dissent, blocking numerous websites and publications, and arresting and harassing bloggers, journalists, and activists. The Bahrain Watch, a nongovernmental group, has reported that Bahraini authorities have used malicious links to determine who was behind certain social media accounts that they disapproved of.

One of Bahrain’s preeminent human rights defenders, Nabeel Rajab, is serving seven years in prison for speech crimes after two separate trials, in 2017 and 2018. In the latest trial, a court sentenced Rajab to five years in prison on February 21 for tweets that criticized the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen.

Since June 2011, 13 prominent dissidents have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including seven sentenced to life in prison. They include a leading long-term human rights advocate, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and Hassan Mushaima, leader of the unrecognized opposition group Al Haq.

In May 2017, a Bahraini court dissolved the leading secular-left National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad). In June, the government ordered the suspension of Al Wasat, Bahrain’s only remaining independent newspaper.

In March 2017, a court sentenced Duaa Alwadaei, wife of Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), to two months in prison in absentia for “insulting” a public official. And on October 30, a court sentenced three other relatives of Alwadaei – Sayed Nazar al-Wadaei, Mahmood Marzooq Mansoor, and Hajar Mansoor Hassan – to three years in prison on dubious terrorism related charges despite allegations of coerced confessions and other serious due process violations.

Sayed Nazar Alwadaei faces a total of 13 years in prison after additional convictions in two separate trials on dubious terrorism charges and sentences of three years and seven years.

The Bahrain Press Association (BahrainPA), a UK-based non-profit organization, reported that the Bahrain Cassation Court on March 27 upheld a 10-year prison sentence and stripping of citizenship for Sayed Ahmed Al-Mousawi, a photographer, arrested in 2014 after covering anti-government protests. His father told Human Rights Watch at the time that interrogators questioned his son about his work, which included photographing the 2011 protests.

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