Twitter users on trial while Turkey hosts key UN Internet summit

News
September 1, 2014

Twitter users on trial while Turkey hosts key UN Internet summit

The Turkish government’s prosecution of Twitter critics is a deeply hypocritical stance for the host of the Internet Governance Forum, Amnesty International said today. The organization called on future hosts to set a better example while highlighting violations of Internet freedom by the US, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Viet Nam.

The event, which takes place in Istanbul between 2 and 5 September, brings together governments and civil society to share best practice on Internet regulation, security and human rights.

Twenty-nine Twitter users are being tried in Izmir, Turkey, and face up to three years in jail for posting tweets during last year’s protests that the authorities claim “incite the public to break the law”. None of the tweets contained any incitement to violence.

“It’s astounding to see Turkish authorities plough on with the prosecution of Twitter critics, even as they host a discussion on Internet governance where human rights are a key theme,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Deputy Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.

“Such double standards on freedom of expression online are a particularly bitter irony for the dozens of Turkish Twitter users facing trial for tweeting about last year’s protests.”

Three users have been additionally charged with ‘insulting’ the Prime Minister. The 29 are the latest in a long line of government critics prosecuted or convicted for their social media posts.

Turkey is not the only country whose heavy-handedness in policing the internet Amnesty International is exposing around the Forum. Activists attending the event will highlight four other countries which have targeted people for exercising their right to free expression online or for bringing to light violations of the right to privacy online.

In Ethiopia, seven bloggers face the death penalty for sharing information about online security, in Viet Nam two are serving 10 and 12 year prison sentences for writing about human rights abuses - with a further 32 detained; and in Saudi Arabia a website founder has been sentenced to 10 years, 1,000 lashes and a fine of US $266,630 for “insulting Islam”.

“Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Viet Nam have handed down some of the harshest sentences to those using the Internet to impart and receive information,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.

“These sentences must be quashed and each country needs to drastically improve its tolerance for online criticism.”

The Internet has proved invaluable to the development of human rights – revolutionizing access to information and improving transparency and accountability.

However, states have been quick to abuse it, using Internet technology to crack down on freedom of expression, censor information on human rights violations and carry out indiscriminate surveillance of its users in the name of security, often in collaboration with corporations.

Those who expose such abuses are themselves being targeted. In the USA, Edward Snowden, currently in exile in Russia, faces 30 years behind bars if extradited to the country for exposing indiscriminate global surveillance by the US government.

“Instead of hunting down Edward Snowden, the US government should focus on reforming its surveillance programmes to end the unjustified violation of Internet users’ privacy he brought to light,” Sherif Elsayed-Ali said.

“Although the Internet has allowed free expression to flourish in many places where it had been tightly suppressed, it also provides new ways for governments to spy on, censor and silence their critics.

“States attending the Internet Governance Forum must seize this opportunity to pledge to end the intimidation and prosecution of those who exercise their freedom of expression online. They need to end unwarranted censorship, reverse the trend for indiscriminate and unlawful surveillance and protect whistleblowers.”

Cases and Background

VIET NAM

Two bloggers are serving 12 and 10 year prison sentences for their writing on the Internet. Nguyen Van Hai, known as Dieu Cay and Ta Phong Tan, author of the blog “Justice and Truth” were convicted in September 2012 under Article 88 of Viet Nam’s Penal Code for “conducting propaganda” against the state.

They wrote about a range of issues including human rights abuses, social injustice and national sovereignty. They are founding members of the independent Free Journalists Club, created in September 2007 to encourage freedom of expression in Viet Nam as an alternative to state controlled media. Through their writing and activism, they helped to inspire the new generation of citizen journalists, advocating for freedom of expression and demanding accountability and transparency from Viet Nam’s government.

Article 88 is one of several vaguely worded articles of the national security section of Viet Nam’s Penal Code. It is frequently used to detain, prosecute and imprison dissidents for their peaceful activism, including bloggers, labour rights and land rights activists,  religious followers, political, human rights and social justice activists, and even song writers.

Ta Phong Tan is a former policewoman. She was arrested in September 2011. While she was held in pre-trial detention her mother died after setting herself on fire in front of government offices of despair at the treatment of her daughter and her family who were being harassed by security forces. Ta Phong Tan was not allowed to attend her funeral ceremony.

Nguyen Van Hai is a journalist who was initially imprisoned in April 2008 on politically motivated charges of tax evasion. Instead of being released at the end of his sentence in October 2010, he was held for further investigation until the September 2012 trial.

Both are held in harsh conditions in separate prisons more than 1,500 km away from their homes, making family visits difficult. Amnesty International has adopted them as prisoners of conscience.

USA

On May 20 2013, National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden left his home in Hawaii for Hong Kong carrying intelligence documents that revealed the existence of vast surveillance programs led by the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). These programmes spy on most of the world’s digital communications and interfere with individuals’ right to privacy on a global scale.

Amnesty International believes that no one should be charged under any law for disclosing information of human rights violations by the government. Such disclosures are protected under the rights to information and freedom of expression. However, senior US officials have condemned Snowden without a trial, labelling him both guilty and a traitor.

Facing up to 30 years in prison if he returns to the USA, Snowden has temporary right to remain in Russia. The charges facing him under the Espionage Act are outdated and ill-equipped to deal with the circumstances of his case. Moreover, they could leave him with no provision to launch a public interest whistle-blowing defence under US law.

There are also serious questions as to whether Snowden would receive a fair trial if he returns. Others prosecuted in the USA for similar acts have been held in conditions that Amnesty International and UN officials consider cruel inhuman and degrading treatment, in violation of international law.

In addition to filing charges, the US authorities have revoked his passport, which interferes with his rights to freedom of movement and to seek asylum in countries that have extended him protection. The USA continues to lean heavily on governments around the world to impede his transit through their territories or travel through their airspace.

TURKEY

29 women and men in the city of Izmir, Turkey, are being prosecuted for sending tweets during last year’s protests across the country. All 29 people are being accused of “inciting the public to break the law” and could face up to three years in prison. Three of them are also accused of ‘insulting’ the Prime Minister, who is named as a victim in the case.

The tweets provided information such as locations where the police were using force against demonstrators, passwords for available wireless networks in the protest area, or contained opinions and messages of support for the demonstrations. None of the tweets contain any incitement to, or indication of participation in, violence.

No evidence presented in court points to criminal conduct that is not protected under international human rights standards on the right to freedom of expression. Three hearings have already taken place. The prosecution suggests authorities aim to discourage others from using social media in a country where Twitter was briefly blocked earlier this year. If imprisoned Amnesty International would consider all 29 individuals prisoners of conscience.

SAUDI ARABIA

Realizing the importance of social media and online activism, the Saudi Arabian authorities have heavily invested in new technologies and tools to repress free online expression. In mid-2013, the authorities attempted to ensure that all encrypted social networking applications such as Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, and Line are fully monitored or outright banned. Scores of activists have been forced to close their online accounts and sign pledges to stop their activism. Many others, including those who refused to stop their online activism, have seen their online writings turned against them as evidence of trumped up charges.

Raif Badawi is one of those prominent online activists whom the authorities have attempted to make an example of. He was arrested on 17 June 2012 and initially charged with “apostasy”, a serious crime that carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. He was first sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for violating Saudi Arabia’s IT law and insulting religious authorities through his online writings and hosting those of others on his website. However, this sentence was overturned on appeal and the case was sent back to the criminal court.

On 7 May 2014, the criminal court found Raif Badawi guilty of “setting up a website”, insulting Islam and ridiculing Islamic figures, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes and a fine of about US$266,630. He was also banned from leaving the country for 10 years after his release and from participating in any media outlets. The judge also ordered that his online forum be shut down. He has appealed the verdict.

The charges against Raif Badawi relate to articles he has written, including one about Valentine’s Day (the celebration of which is banned in his country) through which he was accused of ridiculing the country’s Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

ETHIOPIA

On 17 July 2014, seven members of the Zone 9 blogging collective and three independent journalists were formally charged with terrorism offences and “Outrages against the Constitution” in Ethiopia. Blogger Soliana Shimeles was charged in absentia, while the others - Befeqadu Hailu, Atnaf Berahane, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kiberet, Natnael Feleke, Abel Wabela, Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye and Asmamaw Hailegeorgis - have all been in detention since their arrests on 25 and 26 April 2014.

The group was arrested just days after Zone 9 – whose tagline is “we blog because we care” – announced that they were resuming their activities following months of harassment and intimidation. The charges included taking part in trainings on how to encrypt online communications using the “Security in a Box” toolkit.

Ethiopia regularly uses the flawed Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to silence dissenting voices. Since its introduction in 2009, the law has been used more frequently against members of political opposition parties, independent journalists and peaceful protestors than against any other groups.

Amnesty International considers the detained bloggers and journalists to be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression. Amnesty International has called for their immediate and unconditional release, and for the charges to be dropped against all of the accused.