Sayed Yousif al-Muhafdha and I stood in the main street of Muhazza Village not long before the tear gas canisters exploded. He was there representing the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), preparing to document the police response to anti-government protests. I was there to report on the rally and, hopefully, avoid getting hit by police bullets.
Many of the residents knew and respected Muhafdha from previous visits here to Muhazza, just a few miles outside the capital of Manama. This night police did fire tear gas at the peaceful crowd, but partially because of the presence of international media, the attack was relatively light. Both Muhafdha and I escaped without injury or arrest.
He wasn’t so lucky several weeks later. On Dec. 17, police arrested Muhafdha at another demonstration, investigating him for disseminating false information on Twitter.
Human Rights Watch, which has supported Muhafdha when he was arrested in the past, called his current detention “bizarre.”
State TV can deny that police attack peaceful demonstrations but a Tweet documenting police brutality is a criminal offense. Welcome to the strange world of modern Bahrain.
Prosecutors say Muhafdha will be detained for a week. The head of BCHR is already in jail, serving a three-year sentence for encouraging illegal gatherings.
Muhafdha was held for two weeks in November 2012 on the same charge. He told me Bahrain’s justice system has an “Alice in Wonderland” quality. He had been interviewing the victim of a police assault after the demonstration had already broken up. Nevertheless, he was arrested for being present at an illegal gathering.
“They know I was alone,” he told me. The arrest “was punishment for my human rights work. The prosecutor never interrogated me on the charge. The whole interrogation lasted about one minute.”
The public prosecutor in Bahrain can, in some cases, hold suspects for up to 60 days without trial. In recent months, the government has cracked down on Twitter users, charging them with insulting the monarchy.
I’ve reported from almost all the countries undergoing an Arab Spring. Activists everywhere say theirs was not a Twitter revolution, which implies an uprising inspired by an American technological innovation. For example, the largest demonstrations in Egypt’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak occurred when the internet was completely shut down.
Nevertheless, during periods of relative lull, social media has become an important tool in Bahrain. The government has closed numerous websites, including that of the BCHR. It has allowed Twitter to continue, however, perhaps to better monitor opposition plans.
Muhafdha told me that the jailed leader of BCHR has 170,000 Twitter followers. He has tens of thousands. “I give my password to people outside Bahrain” so they can continue to post even if he is jailed. “I want to make sure everything about human rights will be published.”
Isn’t the use of social media accessible mainly to Bahrainis with money? I asked. Muhafdha said Bahrain has a high percentage of people from all classes who at least have a smart phone. “Children nine years old have Twitter accounts,” he laughed. “Even my mom uses Twitter.”
Muhafdha stresses that the opposition movement is not promoting one religious group over another. “The majority of Bahrain has problems with the government,” he said. “There are many Sunni Muslims in the opposition. There are also Shia Muslims in the government.”
While more Shia participate in the opposition movement, he argued, their concern is human rights for all. “We have the right to have elections every four years. In our country we are 41 years without an elected president or prime minister.”
Is it any wonder that the government wants to get such dangerous ideas off the streets?