Foreign Policy

Cracking Down on Activists for Their Tweets Isn’t New

A prominent critic of the Indian government was in court Tuesday after being arrested for posting two tweets that the country’s Supreme Court has called a “calculated attack on the very foundation of the institution of the judiciary.” The tweets belonged to Prashant Bhushan, a public interest lawyer and activist who has built a career on challenging recent Indian governments and who has emerged as one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fiercest critics.

The tweets in question took aim at India’s Supreme Court, which Bhushan claims has been turned into a political tool for Modi’s government. Last year, the court settled a decades-old dispute when it allowed Hindus to build a temple at the site of a mosque demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992, fulfilling one of Modi’s key campaign promises. In one tweet, Bhushan fired straight at the court, claiming that its recent activity showed “how democracy has been destroyed in India.”

In the other tweet, Bhushan accused Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde of hypocrisy after an image emerged showing the judge posing on an expensive motorcycle without a mask and surrounded by people, despite having placed the Supreme Court on lockdown due to coronavirus concerns. The motorcycle’s owner was the son of a local politician belonging to Modi’s party. 

Bhushan was initially given the opportunity to apologize for his tweets, but he refused to do so. The Supreme Court has adjourned Bhushan’s hearing until Sep. 10. Regardless of the outcome of his sentencing hearing, which is ongoing, Bhushan’s case is emblematic of precisely the issues he has been highlighting: that the Supreme Court is perceived to be siding with the government. 

But India is not unique in this regard. All around the world, proponents of liberal democracy and free speech have found themselves on the defensive—often for posting critical material on social media. Foreign Policy collected four other prominent cases from the past few years in which activists were targeted, arrested, and in some cases imprisoned for posts their governments considered seditious.

1. Bahrain, April 2015

In April 2015, one of Bahrain’s most prominent rights activists was arrested for posting tweets publicizing alleged cases of torture by authorities. Nabeel Rajab tweeted images of a recently released prisoner showing scars and wounds that he claimed were evidence of torture. “I visited a young man who was just released from prison,” he wrote. “[T]he pictures will tell you how they were treated.” Shortly before his arrest, he tweeted an opinion piece he wrote for the Huffington Post in which he described the brutal tactics used by authorities in the country’s Jaw Prison to crack down on a prisonwide protest.

It was the third time Rajab had been arrested for his social media activity. He was jailed in 2012 after making a post critical of longtime Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa and again in 2014 for posting about a former member of the security forces who had joined the Islamic State. Rajab was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2018 for his latest tweets but was conditionally released this June.

2. Zimbabwe, November 2017

In November 2017, an American journalist was arrested in Zimbabwe and charged with attempting to overthrow the government after allegedly posting tweets about then-President Robert Mugabe. Martha O’Donovan was accused of calling Mugabe a “selfish & sick man” from an anonymous Twitter account, as well as posting an image showing the 93-year-old with a catheter. Prosecutors said she had “systematically sought to incite political unrest through the expansion, development and use of a sophisticated network of social media platforms as well as running some Twitter accounts.”

Although a Zimbabwean court dismissed O’Donovan’s case in January 2018 shortly after Mugabe’s ouster, the country’s human rights record hasn’t improved. Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has cracked down on thousands of opposition leaders, activists, and journalists in recent months and has refused to let up despite international pressure.

3. India, March 2020

In March, a local district court lawyer in India was arrested on charges of sedition related to tweets he had posted criticizing Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Abdul Hannan was responding to a video showing a speech by Adityanath in which the chief minister supported baton charges on people protesting the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, both of which critics charge disproportionately target Muslims.

In the tweet, Hannan called Adityanath a “terrorist” and offered free legal services to protesters and urged “constitution lovers” to share the tweet. Hannan’s current status is unclear.

4. Saudi Arabia, April 2020

Two writers and a lawyer were arrested by Saudi authorities in April after posting tweets praising the activist Abdullah al-Hamid, who died in prison while serving a sentence for his own criticism of the government. In his tweet, the lawyer, Sultan al-Ajami, offered his “condolences to his family, ourselves, the homeland, and humanity for the loss of a great thinker, revolutionary and reformer.” The tweets have since been removed.

Hamid was a prominent rights activist in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in March 2013. He co-founded the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, a nongovernmental organization that aims to promote human rights in the country and push for democratic reform of its political institutions. Hamid reportedly had a stroke and entered into a coma on April 9. Prison authorities denied him medical treatment, and he died on April 24.

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