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Bahrain pledges tough crackdown on seditious social media accounts

Twitter and other social media sites serve as a major platform for dissident voices in the Gulf kingdom
Bahraini protesters during clashes with riot police following a demonstration against an opposition leader's arrest (AFP)

Bahraini authorities on Sunday pledged a crackdown on social media accounts which offended "national and traditional values".

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said the government was adopting "severe measures to deal with unprecedented chaos by disruptive social media accounts," in a statement published by the official Bahrain News Agency.

Social networking sites, notably Twitter, serve as a major platform for dissidents and rights activists in the tiny kingdom, which according to Amnesty International has stripped hundreds of dissidents of citizenship in cases that have failed to meet the standards of a fair trial.

"It was unfortunate that the social media had been turned into a place to spread sedition and rumours rather than to strengthen community bonds," Khalifa said, stressing that citizens must "obtain information from official sources".

Authorities in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, a tiny Shia-majority kingdom strategically located between arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, have jailed dozens of activists and disbanded both religious and secular opposition groups since pro-democracy protests broke out in 2011.

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The government has accused Iranian authorities of backing the protest movement in a bid to overthrow it. Tehran denies involvement.

The minister did not identify any specific account but said some had been flagged by the authorities for "spreading malicious rumours that strike at the heart of the social fabric and civil peace".

"We are not far from tracking down those behind this, and taking legal action against them," Khalifa said, adding that if necessary new legislation could be passed.

On Saturday, exiled Bahraini rights activist Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei said the government of Bahrain was targeting his family in an attempt to silence him.

The director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) and one of the most outspoken critics of the Gulf island kingdom said his wife, Duaa, who resides with him in London, had been sentenced in absentia to two months in jail for insulting state institutions.

He added that his mother-in-law, Hajer Mansoor Hassan, who was sentenced to three years in prison for planting a "fake bomb," had begun a hunger strike in prison in protest of restrictions to her privacy. She denies the charge.

"Their escalation against both of my family members was no coincidence," AlWadaei, who has lived in exile since 2012, said. Asked if Bahraini authorities were trying to muzzle him, he replied, "Of course. My wife was beaten, mistreated and threatened that they are going after our family to punish me. Now all their threats were executed."

Hunger strike

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticised Duaa AlWadaei's sentence and urged the kingdom not to prosecute free speech.

"We saw the report that a Bahraini criminal court sentenced her in absentia to ... two months in prison for allegedly insulting a state institution. Really?

"We strongly urge the government to abide by its international obligations and commitments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and that includes the freedom of expression."

Bahrain is a key US ally and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. The kingdom is also home to a British military base currently under construction. 

Bahrain's National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), a state body, said on Twitter that the interior ministry had described Mansoor's health as "normal and stable".

"[We have] not received any complaints or requests for help from Ms Hajer Mansoor Ali or her representative to date," the NIHR tweeted.

Another female activist at the same prison, Medina Ali, also began a hunger strike to protest against a strip search and in solidarity with Hassan, BIRD reported.

Another Bahraini activist, Nabeel Rajab, a leading figure in the protests, has been behind bars since 2015 for tweets critical of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.