Twitter users in Saudi Arabia confront ‘digital authoritarianism’

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RIYADH: A former Saudi official’s tweet in which he expressed his condolences after the death of an activist seemed to be a normal matter, but his disappearance in mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter highlights what human rights activists describe as the “digital authoritarianism” practiced by the state.

Abdulaziz Al-Dakhil disappeared in April of this year, along with two well-known personalities believed to be in prison due to what were seen as criticism of the state.

Separately, information spoke of a data breach by Saudis in 2015 that led to a wave of “enforced disappearances” of critics of the regime, including people with anonymous accounts on the platform.

These cases show how Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Twitter users in the Arab world, has sought to use the platform’s power to promote its ambitious reform plan in conjunction with its drive to curb freedom of expression.

Al-Dakhil held the position of deputy finance minister and was among three public figures believed to be in state custody.

According to human rights organizations, they disappeared last April “because of their condolences on the death of Abdullah Al-Hamid.”

Al-Hamid, a well-known activist, died after suffering a stroke in prison while he was serving a prison sentence of 11 years, which sparked criticism from international organizations.

His son, Abdul Hakim al-Dakhil, said that the whereabouts of his father is unknown, and the authorities have not disclosed any official charges. His son, who is in Paris, added: “Why was he taken? What was his crime? ”He asked,“ Is he in prison just for tweeting? ”

Saudi authorities did not respond to questions seeking comment.

“Simple tweet”

Their detention comes as the Saudi authorities launch a campaign targeting activists, bloggers, and even princes in the royal family who have been arrested in recent years as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to strengthen his grip.

The kingdom made the arrests under a cybercrime law that human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, believe criminalize online criticism of the government.

The kingdom made the arrests under a cybercrime law that human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, believe criminalize online criticism of the government.

“A simple tweet could land you in jail in Saudi Arabia without access to a lawyer for months or even years,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research Director at Amnesty International.

In 2015, a data breach on Twitter via Saudis led to unidentified critics of the government being exposed on the platform and arrested, according to families and two cases against the company.

And the US Department of Justice accused former employees of spying for the Saudi government, with access to data from more than six thousand accounts in search of users “critical of the system.”

According to the ministry, “the personal information of users included e-mail, phone numbers, their Internet Protocol address and their dates of birth,” warning that this data could be used to locate users.

One of them was Abdel-Rahman Al-Sadhan, 36, who works for the Red Crescent, and expressed his views on human rights and other social issues through his anonymous Twitter account, according to his family.

His sister Areej, who lives in San Francisco, stated that he was arrested in his office in Riyadh by Saudi security in March 2018.

Two years after his disappearance, he was allowed to make a phone call to his family, and he said that he was being held in Al-Ha’ir prison near Riyadh.

His sister confirmed: “It was his first and only call, and it lasted for less than a minute,” explaining: “Someone said to him, the minute has ended. There was no farewell or I will talk to you later. ”

“Weapons”

Two Saudi dissidents in North America said in two separate lawsuits against Twitter that their accounts had been targeted in the breach, putting the lives of those close to them in Saudi Arabia at risk.

One of the plaintiffs is Ali Al Ahmed, founder of the Gulf Institute in Washington who filed an amended complaint last August against Twitter for its “utter failure” to protect his account.

Ahmed’s lawyer referred to a list of eight Saudis who had contact with him through anonymous Twitter accounts, in which he says they were imprisoned, went missing, or died after the breach.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent years, Twitter removed thousands of “state-supported” Saudi accounts, citing breaching the messaging platform’s policies.

According to the market research firm Statica, the number of Twitter users in Saudi Arabia is about 12 million.

Electronic armies – known as “electronic flies” – focus on defending the kingdom’s policy and attacking critics. These armies emerged as part of a policy led by the former advisor in the royal court, Saud Al-Qahtani.

Mark Owen Jones, who wrote a book on “Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East”, believes that “Saudi digital authoritarianism … is scandalous in its audacity.”

“Over the past few years, entities linked to Saudi Arabia have successfully used Twitter and managed to penetrate it to the point that Twitter itself has become a weapon of authoritarian rule,” Jones says.

(AFP)





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