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Rights group slams 'assault' on Gulf's online dissidents

Human Rights Watch has launched a website profiling 140 activists [HRW]

Date of publication: 1 November, 2016

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Human Rights Watch has launched a website profiling 140 activists who have been 'systematically' persecuted by GCC States for criticisms made online, particularly through social media.
Human Rights Watch has launched a website campaigning against the harassment and detention of dissidents who criticise Gulf governments online.

The profiles of 140 activists who have spoken out against their governments and subsequently been punished for their views are featured on the site, as HRW urges reforms.

"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 Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director.

"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."

In a nod to Twitter's 140-character limit, the interactive website presents the profiles of 140 prominent Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Omani, Qatari, Saudi, and Emirati social and political rights activists and dissidents and describes their struggles to resist government efforts to silence them.

Read also: Silencing online dissent in the Arab world

All have faced government retaliation. Profiled activists include Nabeel Rajab and Zainab al-Khawaja from Bahrain, Waleed Abu al-Khair and Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani from Saudi Arabia, and Ahmed Mansoor and Mohammed al-Roken from the United Arab Emirates.

Most of the activists profiled – including bloggers, journalists and lawyers – used social media and online forums to initiate protests and awareness of human rights abuses.

Gulf States are intimidating, surveilling, imprisoning, and silencing activists as part of their all-out assault on peaceful criticism

Social media networks were a major factor in planning and organising street protests in some GCC countries during the Arab uprisings of 2011.

In Bahrain, social media networks were used to organise nearly four weeks of massive pro-democracy demonstrations.

In February 2011, thousands of Omanis took to the streets in cities throughout the country in protests seeking reform.

HRW also said that since the uprisings GCC states have deployed surveillance technology to track and monitor citizens' online activity.

This software can enable a government to access emails, text messages 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, research by Citizen Lab found.

All GCC States have also expanded existing legislation and announced new laws which further curtail free expression and punish free speech they deem "criminal," particularly online, HRW added.

"Gulf States are intimidating, surveilling, imprisoning, and silencing activists as part of their all-out assault on peaceful criticism, but they are seriously mistaken if they think they can indefinitely block Gulf citizens from using social and other media to push for positive reforms," Whitson said.

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