The tight-knit world of Middle East bloggers and electronic activists is rallying forcefully around the case of Ali Abdulemam, a prominent Bahraini blogger and online activist, who was arrested in September as part of a wide-ranging crackdown on human rights activists and representatives of the country’s disenfranchised Shia Muslim majority.
The Shia activists are charged with being part of a “sophisticated terrorist network” aiming to overthrow the government, but the exact charges against Abdulemam are murkier and harder to unravel. He is charged with “spreading false news” through his popular portal, Bahrainonline.org.
A married father of three and an IT consultant by day, Adbulemam has become a fixture over the past decade in forums and conferences dedicated to Arab digital activism and online freedom. He is regarded as one of the region’s web pioneers, and is described by one of his defenders as “driven by his passion for effecting change” in Bahrain and the wider Arab world.
In 2002 Abdulemam made waves by abandoning a pseudonym and publishing under his own name. Three years later he was jailed for charges that included fomenting hatred of the government. He later told the Wall Street Journal, “I believed you could speak and not go to jail.”
Abdulemam is a Shia Muslim, described by friends as generally secular. An estimated 70 per cent of Bahrain’s 530,000 citizens are Shias, but the country is completely controlled by its Sunni royal family. The tiny island kingdom remains a close ally of the USA and serves as a host and staging point for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. As a result, it has been given a largely free hand to roll back democratic freedoms that once set it apart from other Persian Gulf nations.
In parliamentary elections last week, Shias held onto their bloc of 18 seats in the 40-member chamber but are not expected to gain enough allies for a majority. And even if they did, control of the largely powerless assembly would be purely symbolic, and would do little to change the way the country works.