Silence is King: The persecution of activists in the Gulf

Since at least 2011, several GCC states have slapped peaceful critics and activists with arbitrary arrests, torture or other ill-treatment, trials that fell short of fair trial standards, and lengthy sentences; they have harassed their family members, imposed travel bans, basically rendering the life of any person wishing to peacefully express any independent opinion impossible.

Today, across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, at least 75 individuals are behind bars, imprisoned solely for exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression, freedom of association or their freedom of assembly. These are cases that Amnesty International has documented through the course of its ongoing monitoring and documentation and this tally is not reflective as such of the full scale of such arrests and prosecutions.

They are being made to sacrifice years of their lives for having advocated for change and reform. Their imprisonment has not only silenced them, but its chilling effect has also effectively spread across the region, where very little, if no space at all, is left for any freedom of speech.

All #PrisonersOfConscience in the #Gulf must be immediately & unconditionally released @KingSalman @BahrainCPnews @KBKAlThani @MohamedBinZayed

Speaking up right now in Bahrain is what courage looks like. The regime has obliterated civil society space and made sure there’s no space for freedom of expression

Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of AbdulHadi al-Khawaja

Silencing voices across GCC states


Rather than addressing the drivers of the 2011 protests, which they had promised to do in the wake of these protests and a moment of acute international scrutiny, Bahraini authorities have instead moved in the past decade to further marginalize Shia citizens, who composed the bulwark of political opposition in the Kingdom. This marginalization took many forms such as outlawing their main political parties and social groups, subjecting hundreds to mass trials and stripping them of their nationality, and tightening state control over their religious practices and over opportunities for higher education.

Bahrain has by now suppressed most of Shia civil society and taken legal action against the most prominent opposition leaders in the country, including imprisoning the leaders of the 2011 protests. In 2016, the authorities dissolved the main opposition group, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society (al-Wefaq), and the opposition political party Waad. In June 2017, al-Wasat, the only independent media outlet in Bahrain was shut down. This meant that an important journalistic voice from Shia civil society that had called for peaceful change in Bahrain was silenced. The authorities continue to restrict the registration of local NGOs and have blocked the website of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) in Bahrain since 2006.

Today, at least 12 Bahraini activists remain behind bars, serving up to life sentences in jail.


Freedom of expression is restricted including by vaguely worded law criminalizing a broad range of speech and publishing. The authorities have exercised arbitrary executive powers, placing administrative sanctions such as travel bans on individuals without judicial process, in some cases seemingly as punishment for their political opinions or peaceful activities. In May 2022, two lawyers and members of the Al Murra tribe, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison on charges including contesting laws ratified by the Emir and organizing unauthorized public meetings.

Saudi Arabia

Despite the Saudi Arabian authorities’ rhetoric about reforms, they have unleashed an intense crackdown on citizens promoting change in the last few years. There has been an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression, targeting the human rights community as well as a wide range of individuals who have expressed any form of criticism in Saudi Arabia.

One of the instruments of that repression has been the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which was set up in 2008 to try individuals accused of terror-related crimes. Amongst those the court has prosecuted are human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, religious clerics and political activists, including Shi’a activists from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

In addition to prosecutions as a tool to muzzle dissent, the authorities resort to a range of other tools to maintain their clampdown. One of these is the use of prolonged travel bans – handed down either as part of sentences or arbitrarily without any official justification – which effectively obstruct fundamental life choices like career and education, and prevent activists from reuniting with their families abroad once they have been released from detention

United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Since 2012, over 60 individuals have been detained in relation to the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression including in what is known as the UAE 94 mass trial. So far only one of the UAE 94 men was released and the other men – sentenced to between seven and ten years in prison during the UAE 94 mass trial – remained arbitrarily detained past the completion of their sentences without legal justification.  

UAE authorities restrict freedom of expression, taking measures to silence its critics including on social and political issues. In 2017, Ahmed Mansoor, the last man to freely criticize the authorities publicly from within the country, was arrested and subjected to another unfair trial.

In July 2021, the Pegasus Project revealed the massive scale and breadth of abuse facilitated by cybersurveillance company NSO Group and its state clients. The project revealed that scores of journalists, activists, and politicians around the world were unlawfully surveilled in violation of their human rights. Media organizations noted the UAE as a potential client state of NSO Group

How do these states exercise their silencing and restrictions?

Here are some examples:

  • Resort to vaguely worded laws and far-reaching provisions in the Penal Codes, Criminal Procedure Laws, Cybercrime and other laws to detain, try and sentence individuals
  • Equate peaceful political activities with threats to state security
  • Severely restrict public gatherings and demonstrations
  • Ban and disband independent NGOs and political opposition groups
  • Silence and lock up the founders of independent NGOs.
  • Use of cybersurveillance as a tool of repression

Meet some of the peaceful activists currently detained in the GCC

Take action

AbdulJalil al-Singace

He must be immediately and unconditionally released, and pending that, granted immediate access to any necessary medical care

Salma al-Shehab

Her conviction must be quashed and she must be immediately and unconditionally released

Hazza and Rashed bin Ali Abu Shurayda al-Marri

Their convictions and life sentences must be quashed and they must be immediately released


In 2020, Amnesty International along with partner NGOs and activists
called for the release of prisoners in the Gulf –
some of which have since been released.

All #PrisonersOfConscience in the #Gulf must be immediately & unconditionally released @KingSalman @BahrainCPnews @KBKAlThani @MohamedBinZayed