DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The nightly disruption of internet access in a Bahraini neighborhood home to a prominent Shiite cleric targeted in a government crackdown appears to be deliberate, an advocacy group said Thursday.
The report by Bahrain Watch comes as human rights activists, journalists, Shiite leaders and others have been imprisoned or forced into exile in a severe clampdown on dissent in the tiny, Sunni-ruled island kingdom.
With independent news gathering growing more difficult in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the report suggests the internet slowdown is intended to disrupt protesters in the Diraz neighborhood. That's where protesters have held a sit-in and demonstrated in support of Sheikh Isa Qassim, who lost his citizenship in June over government allegations he fanned extremism.
Locals in Diraz have complained about poor internet connectivity in recent weeks, as well as a heavy police presence. Each night around 7 p.m. and lasting until about 1 a.m., online traffic there slows to less than a crawl on mobile phones and some fixed-line internet connections, Bahrain Watch said.
"Our experiments show ... certain 3G and 4G cell towers belonging to Batelco and Zain appear to be turned off and 2G cells broadcast notifications to phones indicating that mobile data services are not supported," the report said. "Our experiments also reveal the presence of a device on Batelco's internet backbone that disrupts certain internet traffic to and from Diraz."
Batelco and Zain, two of the island's main telecommunication companies, did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
Bahrain Watch suggests in the report that it may be a government order forcing the companies to throttle internet access. During Bahrain's 2011 Arab Spring-inspired protests, internet traffic in and out of the country dropped by 20 percent, "which could have been a result of intentional governmental throttling or a side effect of surveillance-related tinkering with the network," according to the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House.
Bahraini government officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The government in Bahrain crushed the Arab Spring protests with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since then, the island has seen low-level unrest, protests and attacks on police.
Since April, however, the government's crackdown has intensified to levels unseen in five years. Its decisions include suspending the country's largest Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, in a surprise court hearing and the doubling to nine years of a prison sentence handed down to Al-Wefaq's secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman.
The crackdown comes as tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran remain at a fever-pitch after the Sunni-ruled kingdom executed a prominent Shiite cleric in January. Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iranian protesters, angered by the cleric's execution, attacked two of the kingdom's diplomatic posts.
Bahrain also faces increasing economic pressure as its oil-dependent economy has suffered from depressed global crude prices. That's likely made it more dependent on support from Saudi Arabia, which has long viewed Bahrain as being under its sphere of influence.
Bahrain Watch report: https://bahrainwatch.org/blog/2016/08/03/bahrain-internet-curfew
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