To Silence Online Criticism, Authoritarians Use Offline Prisons | Freedom House

To Silence Online Criticism, Authoritarians Use Offline Prisons

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Photo Credit: Mike Licht

Before autocratic regimes fully grasped the democratic nature of the internet, netizens basked in the sunshine of global intercommunication. But in a backlash against digitally driven uprisings, such as those of the Arab Spring, tyrants are now maneuvering to bring users’ online and mobile activities under the shadow of outdated and arbitrary legal restrictions. One sign of this crackdown is the alarming number of digital activists behind bars around the world.

Of the 47 countries analyzed in its Freedom on the Net 2012 study, Freedom House found that 19 had passed new laws or policies that could violate users’ rights to free expression and privacy during the period under review. In 25 countries, at least one blogger or other netizen was arrested for content disseminated via some form of information and communication technology (ICT). These figures seem to grow worse with each passing month.

For imprisoned netizens in the states that were rated worst in the report’s category for violation of user rights—Bahrain, Syria, Iran, and China—there are abundant examples of torture and even death at the hands of government forces. In certain other countries rated Not Free—such as Cuba, Ethiopia, and Vietnam—or identified in the report as “Countries at Risk”—such as Azerbaijan, Malaysia, and Russia—internet users and content providers have been targets of allegations ranging from blasphemy or insulting the royal family to threatening national security. Alternatively, they are detained on bogus charges like evading military service or drug possession to mask the fact that they are being punished for their political opinions, religious beliefs, or desire for more freedom.

As the world’s governments wrap up discussions in Dubai this week on regulating the global internet, they should keep in mind the dozens of individuals who languish in prison because their rulers will not tolerate an open internet within their borders. The delegates should reaffirm the UN Human Rights Council resolution that human rights, including freedom of expression, should be promoted, protected, and enjoyed online in all member states. Let the stories of the following 10 netizens serve as a solemn reminder that internet freedom should change the way authoritarian countries are governed, not the other way around.

Worst of the Worst


Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, has been repeatedly arrested and sentenced to prison terms, most recently on July 9, for having “insulted Bahrainis” in a Twitter message. A month later, the court added a three-year sentence for protest-related charges. On December 11, an appeals court reduced his sentence to two years, clearing him of a charge of insulting police, but upholding the conviction for encouraging “illegal gatherings.”








 Photo Credit: Bahrain Center for Human Rights



On March 15, Bassel Khartabil, an open-source software specialist, was detained in a wave of arrests in the Mazzeh district of Damascus. The website campaigning for his release reported this week that he has been transferred from a civilian jail to a military prison, where he is denied a lawyer. His family heard reports from a released detainee that Bassel has suffered torture and other abuse. He was included on Foreign Policy’s list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012 for “insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution.”










Photo Credit: Joi Ito



Mahsa Amrabadi, an independent multimedia journalist who reports on human rights issues, has faced repeated arrest and solitary confinement since the postelection protests of 2009. She was last detained on May 9, 2012, and is now serving a two-year sentence for “activities against the regime” and “insulting the president.” Amrabadi and her husband, Masoud Bastani, are part of a growing group of Iranian journalists held in deplorable conditions. Concern for their well-being intensified after blogger Sattar Beheshti died from suspected torture in Iran’s notorious Evin prison last month, less than a week after his arrest for alleged “actions against national security on social networks and Facebook.”









Photo Credit: Iran Watch Canada


On November 1, internet cafe owner Cao Haibo was sentenced to a prison term of eight years under the charge of “state subversion,” after being held for almost one year without trial. It is unclear what alleged offense the Kunming resident was punished for in his closed trial, but human rights groups believe it is related to content published on a chat group about Chinese politics that he founded in September 2011. Cao’s lawyer has filed an appeal, but China’s notoriously politicized court system offers little hope of justice.



Other Not Free Countries and Partly Free “Countries at Risk”


Laritza Diversent was arrested on November 7 alongside dozens of other bloggers and civil society advocates arbitrarily detained in consecutive government raids for denouncing human rights abuses in Cuba and protesting against the recent wave of detentions of journalists. A well-known attorney and blogger at Jurisconsulto de Cuba (Cuban Legal Adviser), Diversent is a prominent figure in the human rights community in Havana. Although many of the other detainees have been released, she remains behind bars without charges.





Eskinder Nega, a prominent Ethiopian journalist, was sentenced on July 13 to 18 years in prison under the country’s Antiterrorism Proclamation of 2009. Twenty-three other journalists and opposition politicians were sentenced in the same court ruling. Eskinder was detained in September 2011 after publishing an online column that criticized the government’s use of the antiterrorism law to silence dissent. The website campaigning for Eskinder’s release calls him the face of internet censorship in a country that is among the world’s leading abusers of free speech online.



Blogger Nguyen Van Hai, better known by his penname “Dieu Cay,” is a founding member of the Club for Free Journalists in Ho Chi Minh City. He and other members were charged with “spreading antigovernment propaganda,” and on October 4 he received a sentence of 12 years in prison for “seriously affecting national security and the image of the country in the global arena.” Dieu Cay was first arrested on April 20, 2008, and charged with tax evasion.



Human rights defender Taleh Khasmammadov was arrested on November 12, 2011, and sentenced on April 20, 2012, to four years in prison for alleged hooliganism, disorderly conduct, and resisting the authorities. He worked in Ujar district to document human rights abuses, often posting YouTube videos of interviews with victims of gang violence, organized crime, and human trafficking in which local police are allegedly involved. The judge’s decision is currently being appealed, but the police have asked to extend his jail term.



On August 10, blogger Amizudin Ahmat was sentenced to three months in prison for contempt of court after breaking an order not to criticize the minister of culture, information, and communications, Rais Yatim. Amizudin, a member of the opposition People’s Justice Party, was sued for defaming the minister and required to pay exorbitant damages. Currently the prison sentence is deferred pending an appeal.



On July 31, a Moscow court found anticorruption activist and prominent opposition blogger Aleksey Navalny guilty of embezzlement, and while he is still awaiting sentencing, the conviction could carry a prison term of up to 10 years. Navalny’s detention for two weeks in December 2011, following postelection protests, garnered international media attention, and Navalny suspects that now, rather than risk making him a political prisoner again, the Kremlin is attempting to force him to flee the country.



Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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