Human Rights Watch on Tuesday slammed a “well-funded” clampdown on Gulf Arab rights activists and urged the six monarchies to implement “much-needed reforms” instead of jailing peaceful critics.
The New York-based watchdog made its latest call for reform in Gulf Cooperation Council states as it launched an interactive website with the profiles of 140 prominent Gulf activists — reflecting Twitter’s 140-character limit — who have been arrested, tried and sentenced for voicing their opinions online over the past six years.
They include prominent Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab, who is on trial on charges of “spreading false information and posting online insults,” and Saudi activist Waleed Abulkhair who is serving a 15-year jail sentence.
Also among those listed is Emirati lawyer Mohammed al-Roken, who was jailed in 2013 with 69 people for 15 years after being convicted of plotting to overthrow the regime.
“The Gulf states have engaged in a systematic and well-funded assault on free speech to subvert the potentially transformative impact of social media and internet technology,” said HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.
“Instead of hauling off their peaceful online critics to jail, Gulf governments should expand debate among members of society and carry out the much-needed reforms that many of these activists have demanded for years,” she said.
Hundreds of dissidents, from political activists to journalists and lawyers, have been imprisoned in the Gulf after “unfair trials”, HRW said.
“GCC rulers’ sweeping campaigns against activists and political dissidents have included threats, intimidation, investigations, prosecution, detention, torture, and withdrawal of citizenship,” it added.
GCC governments also used surveillance technology bought from Western and Israeli companies to track and monitor their citizens’ online activity, it said.
All GCC governments except for Kuwait have used intrusion software, said HRW, citing evidence from Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab.
“This software can enable a government to access emails, text messages, call histories, contact lists, files, and potentially passwords, and can allow authorities to turn on a phone or laptop’s camera and microphone to take pictures or record video and conversations without the owner’s knowledge,” the rights group said.