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By Monica G. Prieto (Tripoli, Lebanon) / Traslation Blanca G. Bertolaza

  • Syrian activists create a private healthcare network to treat the victims of the repression in private homes
  • According to Amnesty International, in government hospitals the patients are arrested, questioned and tortured even by the medical staffSome of the wounded are transferred to the north of Lebanon, where another network hospitalizes them and takes care of the expenses

The four young men lie in two rooms in one of Tripoli’s main hospitals, bright and aseptic. They all have one thing in common: they were wounded during the repression in Syria and treated in private homes by doctors and nurses because they were scared to go to a public hospital, since the regime has turned them into “military bases”, as Syrian activists and NGOs such as Avaaz and Amnesty International have reported.

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By Mónica G. Prieto/ Translation: Blanca García
  • The regimes start the online persecution of cyber activists in Bahrain, Syria or Saudi Arabia
  • “There is a war going on in cyberspace”, explains the manager of the NGO Insan
  • The Damascus regime tortures social network users into giving up their passwords to get to other dissidents

Image captured by an activist of a mass arrest in the town of Al Baida, close to Banias. (Syrian Uprising 2011 Information Center. Facebook)

The war that pits the Arab dictatorships against its population has been going on in the internet for some time. Each search for the words Syria, Bahrain, Libya or Yemen in social networks runs into an avalanche of abuse reports done by activists but also by their antitheses, messages from followers of the regime willing to discredit, humiliate and refute their opponents. From denying the very existence of the demonstrations to insulting the organizers and protesters.

“Of course the protesters are fired. I would fire anyone who skipped work”, writes Bahraini user @mohamedhasan89 on Twitter, justifying the dismissal of 1,600 Shiite workers from their jobs, accused of having supported the demonstrations, as part of the regime’s strategy to silence the protests. “The protesters complain that they are insulted when they get arrested. The next thing they’ll say is that they gave them tea in plastic cups”, satirizes @sheeshaBH. At least four people have died in the tortures that take place during the interrogations, and almost a thousand have been arrested since the protests started.

But the interrogators have a new question in their survey: the passwords for the arrestee’s social network accounts.  Because there is something new happening on the net: as the revolutions come to a standstill drowned by the bullets of the men in uniform, repression spreads through the internet. The dictatorships have recruited volunteers to thwart the cyber activists, especially dangerous because of their ability to summon people and especially because of their coverage of the events, to the unrest of regimes who thought that shutting off the press from their countries was enough so that nothing would come out. The videos, photos and comments uploaded on social networks are enough to show the regimes up and expose their crimes.

Mohamed al Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, found one morning pictures of his private residence going around the internet, as well as his address, phone number, picture and calls to “murder and do away with him”. “It is the second time it happens”, he explains to Periodismo Humano from a chat room in Manama. “The Government’s supporters upload my information on Facebook, Twitter and forums, accuse me of treason and insult me”. Mohamed plays down its importance because he is not the only one to undergo such harassment, but he denounces that the campaign of repression has reached the networks and crystallizes on Facebook walls bombarded with insults and threats, defamatory Twitter messages and offensive posts in the Blogs of the main activists.

In Bahrain, seven well-known cyber activists have already been arrested, three are missing and three more have been threatened, among them Maskati himself. Also in that list is Nabil Rajaab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and active tweeter. Last Saturday, his home was attacked with smoke bombs: one broke through his brother’s bedroom window. “We went through frightening moments rescuing my brother, his wife and daughter since they came close to asphyxiating. It is an attempt to murder members of my family to pressure me into quitting my humanitarian activity”, he said to CNN. “Thank god the smoke bombs fell on the tiles and not on the rugs, they could have killed my whole family while we slept”.

On Facebook, Maskati and other activists like Frontline Defenders regional director Abdulhadj al Khawaja, accused of “terrorism” by the regime, are showered with insults, although there is also a group created to support them. These are not isolated incidents. Suddenly multiple groups that support the repressing regimes have come up. Some reports are starting to come up on arrests in which passwords to private profiles are obtained amid beatings to trail other dissidents, as well as on interrogations about comments written on Twitter. And Bahrain is not the exception but the rule in the Arab revolts.

“We are witnessing this phenomenon in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, but I am sure that it also happens in all the other places”, explains by e-mail Jillian York, Electronic Freedom Foundation’s director for International Freedom of Expression, especially interested in watching over the infiltration of governments on the network of networks. “We had already seen similar scenarios in Iran, of course, and I am positive that as long as the revolts continue, we will keep seeing them in more places”.

Image captured by an activist of a demonstration in Banias. (Syrian Uprising 2011 Information Center. Facebook)

“There is a war in itself going on in cyberspace”, asserts Wissam Tarif, director of the Human Rights NGO Insan. And like in every war, there are victims already. “Many cyber activists have ceased their activities because of the repression. And many Human Rights advocates have gone away out of fear of being arrested. Bahrain is not an appropriate place for them”, explains Maskati.

It is a broad phenomenon. In Saudi Arabia, where there are some timid protests to protest for the discrimination of the Shiite minority, recently a Facebook group called Teach me to drive so I can protect myself has been shut down. It tried to make the traditional Saudi society aware of the need of women being able to get behind the wheel and called a massive female driving day for June 17th. In the Wahabi kingdom, where the most rigid interpretation of Islam is its body of law, cars are reserved for men, which forces the families to hire drivers who can take the females to work, to school with their kids or to the hospital. Manal al Sherief, promoter of the Facebook group, was arrested last Saturday by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the religious police. Her crime: uploading a video on YouTube in which she could be seen driving.

“How could Facebook have shut down the group? In theory, only the Facebook staff has the authority to close down a group if it does not follow the terms of use”, wonders a Saudi journalist living in Lebanon. “This looks as if the Saudi regime has the power to close it down with one simple call”, she suggests. Censorship did not stop there: the Wahabi dictatorship had no scruples about blocking, one day later, Omaima al Najjar’s blog, a woman who had shown her repulse about Manal’s arrest and demanded her liberation.

Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

In Syria the situation of those citizens who film and upload examples of the bloody repression on the network to broadcast the crimes of Bashar Asad’s dictatorship is dramatic. The activists report that the regime’s followers have created Twitter and Facebook accounts and YouTube channels to spread their version of what is happening, according to which, terrorists paid by outside countries hide behind the protests and murder members of the Security forces forcing the repression, to maintain security.

In an article published by the New York Times, several Syrian dissidents explained how they had been, during their arrests, forced to give up their passwords to enter their accounts on social networks. Once they were set free, they found their walls full of messages supporting Bashar Asad. Moreover, the country’s 3G network is starting to have blackouts to prevent videos from being uploaded on the internet from cell phones. Syria’s telephone network is run by the governing family.

It is a desperate attempt to finish with the continuous leak of news and pictures of the repression of peaceful protests. There are an estimated 580,000 users with a Facebook account right now in Syria, 105% more than three months ago, when the regime opened to social networks pretending to be immune to the Arab spring, according to Fadi Salem, director of Dubai School of Government’s Innovation and Government program. Not all of them used connectivity to denounce the regime’s crimes: the most curious case is the Syrian Electronic Army, a Facebook group in which they explained how to attack cyber dissidents using technology. Facebook closed it down for violating its terms of use.

“The same way that, years ago, it became common to talk about the Web 2.0, now we are seeing Repression 2.0”, explained Saniel B. Baer, assistant to the Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the US, in declarations to the Washington Post. The means are sophisticated judging from Hillary Clinton’s declarations last April. “In some countries, democratic and Human Rights activists and independent bloggers find their email addresses hacked or their computers infected with spyware. Digital activists are being tortured to get their passwords”.

It is a fact that Arab bloggers are being persecuted by the authorities. And that the generous, open Internet policy undertaken by countries like Syiria –opposed to the information blackout used by the dictatorship in Egypt to abort its revolt- has had positive consequences, but now starts to have negative effects. “Using [the Internet] for activism is a risky bet. It may work if the regime you work against is not rough or powerful enough. If you win fast, Facebook is the tool to use. If not, it becomes very dangerous”, explains Peter Eckersley, another member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

But, will this cyber repression campaign end the Arab spring? “It depends on how effective or important the Internet is in this uprising”, continues Jillian York. “In Tunisia or Egypt we have seen the incredible role technology has played, but in Syria, for example, we have not seen the same online activism, so cyber attacks have less impact. On the other hand, the way the Syrian regime uses the Internet to go after activists –literally getting their passwords and then arresting them- implies that some of the better-connected and better-informed activists disappeared, either because they are arrested or because they are hiding. Anyway, we are worried that the [cyber dissidence] movement will be, from now, less effective”.

Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
  • 48 doctors and nurses are tried by court martial in Bahrain for assisting protesters wounded in the repression of the March demonstrations
  • Among the charges they face, conspiracy to overthrow the Al Khalifa dictatorship and illegal possession of weapons
  • There is fear over their future being linked to the success of the national dialogue with the opposition that the regime wants to launch in July
Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

When Bahraini doctor Farida Dallal gathered enough courage to appear on Al Jazeera, she did so with a black eye and a shaky voice, but determined. “They beat me with a hose, a big hose, in my arms and legs. They kicked me in the back (…) They humiliated us verbally with inappropriate expressions like ‘dirty Shiite’ and ‘whore’, they said to us that we are not worth a thing, that we cannot think, that we are not loyal, that we don’t deserve our uniform”.

The uniform the torturers said she didn’t deserve is simply a white robe. Farida is one of the many healthcare professionals arrested and tortured by the Bahraini dictatorship, that doesn’t distinguish between professionals when it comes to arresting and incriminating its population for the social protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets to ask for democracy. About a thousand of them are still in prison awaiting a trial, like the 47 doctors and nurses – all of them Shiites, the religious majority that the Sunni dictatorship accuses of wanting to stage a coup d’état- that last Monday went through the first day of their trial after weeks of arrest.

(AP Photo)

All of them denounced having been tortured, as their relatives told, a practice that on the other hand is usual in the Gulf kingdom. Only a few of them were allowed to see their lawyers before the process started.

On Wednesday, June 29th, 20 of them were set free in what is seen as a goodwill gesture to facilitate the participation of the opposition in the national dialogue session that the monarchy has called for July 2nd. It is the second partial release of the group of health workers, of which only 14 remain in prison. However, the charges have not been dismissed and all 48 of them still have to face a military trial. “I think that it is a political move, nothing more than that”, regrets a lawyer in declarations to Reuters agency. “We have asked the court for their release in previous hearings. Anyway, this is good news for them”.

The lack of judicial rights is common in Bahrain, but the trial against the doctors has caused the outrage of the international NGO’s, who see how the kingdom of Bahrain, headquarters of the United State’s Fifth Fleet and who maintains privileged relations with the West and its main regional partners, can impose a court martial on physicians who merely obeyed their Hippocratic Oath.

The charges that are attributed to them range from “incitement to overthrow the regime” to “illegal possession of weapons”, adding “occupation of the hospital” and “taking medical equipment” in reference to the alleged theft of blood to exaggerate in front of the cameras the wounds of the protesters beaten by the security forces during the violent clearing of Pearl Square. For NGO’s like the Bahraini Center for Human Rights, the professionals are tried just for carrying out their duty, as John Lubbock, in charge of the organizations’ legal department, explains. “The regime is scared of these health workers because they reflect the non-sectarian nature of the protests. Their Hippocratic Oath means that they have to treat patients whichever their religious or political thoughts. They are a symbol of the unity of the majority against the Government’s and their accomplices’ oppression, and that’s why they are dangerous. As long as the Al Khalifas can keep the people divided, they will stay in power, so they react particularly harshly against the demonstrators who protest under the slogan no Sunnis, no Shiites, just Bahrainis.

Sanitary personnel attend a patient in a Bahraini hospital. (AP)

On that fateful repression of the first protests, in mid-May, the information that reached the outside came straight from the hospitals: the international channels got in contact with the physicians, who narrated live the brutality of the attack while attending the wounded. They didn’t spare labels, probably because of the shock of having to see hundreds of people at the same time, many of them with shots fired by the forces assigned to protect them. It would not be long before they paid the price of speaking up in a dictatorship business friendly for the West but as ruthless as any other: in the following days of repression, the hospitals were surrounded by the Security Forces and, at a given time, occupied by the military, who arrested wounded people and even turned areas of the health centers into improvised detention rooms. Ambulances were halted and the workers forced to stay in situ instead of going to the repression area where the wounded lay. Afterwards, with the martial law and the occupation by Gulf troops, doctors started to disappear, and not only in big hospitals like Salmanya, the main medical center in Manama. A Lebanese-American nurse who works in a Bahraini cosmetic surgery clinic Human Journalism got in contact with admitted that in her healthcare center “two doctors have disappeared. They are both Shiite and no one has heard back from them”.

Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

Once the state of emergency that defused the protests came into effect, at least nine healthcare centers were combed by the officers searching for suspicious physicians. Dozens were arrested last April, among them, the president of the Bahraini Medical Society, Ahmed Jamal, and the president of the Nursing Society, Rula al Safar. And many of them reported tortures in declarations to NGO’s and foreign media. Always anonymously, out of fear of retaliation, like this doctor’s testimony obtained by The Independent. “The real torture started when they blindfolded me. They made me run around the interrogation room. I ran and I banged into a wall so hard that I got a huge bump on my head. The interrogators made me put my shoes over my head. They said that I deserved it because I am a “dirty Shiite” who works against our king and our crown prince”. “They took away my robe because they said I didn’t deserve it and that I had betrayed my career. They took photos of me while I was forced to dance and sing a song that said we all love prince Khalifa bin Salman. They hit me so hard they made me scream with pain, and then they yelled we don’t want to hear you, you scream like a whore. Do you think you are with your husband in your bedroom? Do you miss him?”

In other declarations obtained by the British newspaper, the daughter of one of the arrested doctors assures that they “have been forced to confess that they only gave treatment to the Shiites and not to the Sunnis, that they stole blood from the hospital to splatter on the protesters  and that they encouraged others to protest against the regime”. It is a common denunciation that came up again in the first day of the trial, which took place on Monday in court martial. “We have been tortured into signing statements with false accusations”, they told their relatives, according to the local NGO’s who are following the trial. “I’m warning you that you have to say what we want you to, or we will beat you like a mule until you do”, were the words an interrogator dedicated to a nurse.

Injured men in a recent protest in Bahrain. (AP)

For John Lubbock, the main reason that explains the arrest of doctors and nurses is that they are the most valuable “witnesses of the crimes committed against the protesters. They have seen the dead and the injured, they have experience and skills to spread the information about what they have seen, and if an international Human Rights delegation comes to Bahrain, they will want to talk to the doctors. If the regime manages to silence them, or to discredit them with show trials, there will be no more witnesses”.

Organizations like Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch have denounced these arrests as an inexcusable violation of international law. “The assault on healthcare workers and their patients is an extreme violation of the principle of medical neutrality  and means a huge breach in international law”, stated the first organization in a harsh report against the Bahraini authorities. Amnesty has gathered testimonies among the relatives of those arrested according to which “members of the Bahrain Criminal Investigation Directorate force the arrested to stay standing up for long periods of time, they forbid them from sleeping, they hit them with hoses and wooden sticks with nails, and they make them sign declarations while blindfolded”. To Joe Stork, regional Human Rights Watch manager, there is no doubt that the massive campaign against doctors and nurses –at least 150 have been suspended and subjected to investigations- are “targets of the regime’s revenge”.

(AP Photo)

One of the consequences of the suspension or arrest of the most prestigious Bahraini doctors and nurses is that those injured  -repression is still going on, especially now that the state of emergency has been lifted thus reviving the demonstrations- to not dare to go to the hospitals anymore. “Even those who have been shot and have bullets lodged in their bodies fear being arrested in the hospitals and tortured”, denounces Nabil Rajaab, in charge of the Bahraini Center for Human Rights.

In the case of the 47 doctors and nurses subjected to court martial, their trial will be taken up again on June 13th. Their lawyers estimate that they could be convicted to 10-20 years in prison, but they fear that it could all depend on the success of the national dialogue Hamad bin Issa al Khalifa’s regime wants to undertake in July. If the opposition is quick to make concessions, the physicians might be lucky; if it doesn’t, their future is much more unpredictable. An intolerable situation for seven international medical organizations who have sent a letter to king Khalifa demanding the liberation of the arrested and respect for the healthcare sector. “We cannot remain silent”, Stephen Soldz, president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, has stated. Other international institutions don’t think the same way, such as the International Automobile Federation (FIA), who decided to reprogram the Bahrain Grand Prix for October 30th after receiving a report about the “calm” Bahrain enjoys: only the objection of 11 of the 12 participant teams have gotten Bernie Ecclestone to change his opinion. To the FIA, the tortures in Bahrain are just minor sins. And they are not the only ones to think so.