What free speech means to Bahrain

In the last week, Bahrain’s treatment of its citizens and their right to free expression has been repeatedly in the news. Sara Yasin reports on a spate of developments that raise questions about the Bahraini government’s commitment to free speech.

Blogger and activist Ali Abdulemam has been granted asylum in the United Kingdom. Abdulemam’s two years in hiding began shortly after the start of Bahrain’s political unrest in February 2011. He was sentenced in absentia to fifteen years in prison on charges of attempting to overthrow the monarchy.

Abdulemam is the prominent founder of Bahrain Online, a site that created an online space to criticise and discuss the country’s regime in 1998. Initially, he wrote anonymously, but he began to write in his own name in 2001. Public dissent in Bahrain comes at a price: the blogger was first arrested in 2005 and then once more in 2010.

News of Abdulemam’s heroic escape did not amuse Bahrain’s government:

Ali Abdulemam was not tried in court for exercising his right to express his opinions. Rather, he was tried for inciting and encouraging continuous violent attacks against police officers. Abdulemam is the founder of Bahrain Online, a website that has repeatedly been used to incite hatred, including through the spreading of false and inflammatory rumors.

The statement goes on to say that the country “respects the right of its citizens to express their opinion”, but makes a distinction between expressing an opinion and “engaging in and encouraging violence.”

Back in 2010, Abdulemam was jailed, tortured, and accused of being a part of a “terrorist network.” The real threat he posed to the state, as fellow activist Ala’a Shehabi put it last year, was that “his forum offered dissidents a voice.”

So what does “incitement” look like in Bahrain? For documenting a protest on Twitter last December, Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) member Said Yousif, was jailed and charged with “spreading false news.” According to the country’s laws, “the dissemination of the false news must amount to incitement to violence.” As Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, Sarah Lea Witson put it:

If Bahraini officials believe that an activist is inciting violence by tweeting a picture of an injured demonstrator, then it’s clear that all the human rights sessions they’ve attended have been wasted.

The jailed head of the organisation, Nabeel Rajab, is currently serving a two year sentence for organising “illegal protests.” BCHR released a statement today expressing concerns that Rajab has been transferred to solitary confinement. He has been unreachable since relaying to his wife an account of young political prisoners being tortured earlier this week. Rajab was requesting a visit from the International Committee of the Red Cross, to document the case.

Still, Bahrain insists that freedom of expression is something that it upholds — in fact, it has gone so far as prosecuting individuals for supposedly abusing it. Just yesterday, year-long sentences were handed to six Twitter users for making posts insulting Bahrain’s King Hamad. For hanging a Bahraini flag from his truck during protests in 2011, a man was handed a three-month jail sentence today.

Looks like it might be time for Bahrain to reevaluate how it understands freedom of expression.

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