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Bahrain's Twitter Army Cracks Down on Dissent

In Bahrain, all it takes is clicking on the wrong link to end up in jail. A new report prepared by Bahrain Watch, an activist organization critical of the ruling monarchy, details how the Bahraini government creates fake Twitter accounts to reveal the identity of anonymous anti-regime tweeps -- and then prosecutes them on the basis of "secret evidence."

Here's how it works. Dozens of shell accounts -- many designed to impersonate top figures within the Bahraini opposition -- have tweeted links to anonymous Twitter users who comment on Bahrain. The links include spyware that reveals the user's IP address, which the government can use to identify the name and street address of the person behind the account. From there, it's simple police work: The government can raid the house and build a case against those living there, usually on charges of "insulting the king." In total, Bahrain Watch found that more than 120 accounts were targeted by the government in this way.

With the government having crushed large street demonstrations in the capital, the online debate has become the new front line of the revolt. In May, five men were sentenced to a year in prison for violating Article 214 of Bahrain's penal code, which prohibits "offending the emir [king] of the country, the national flag or emblem." During the trial of one of those men, Ammar Makki Mohammed al-Aali, an official for the Bahraini police's Cyber Crime Unit said that his IP address was obtained through "a private way I cannot reveal."

But the government's tactics are not only repressive -- they're inexact. A Twitter user other than the one being targeted may click on a publicly available link, or the targeted user may click on the link -- but do so while using a connection not registered in their name, directing the government to someone else's IP address. Take the case of Mahdi al-Basri, a lawyer who was sentenced to a year in prison in May for operating the anti-regime account @karrana14. However, one of the account's operators said Basri was not involved -- the account operator had merely clicked on a "suspicious link" while using Basri's Internet account.

The monarchy in Manama makes a show of being different from the other "Arab Spring" regimes -- but by using tools that are both authoritarian and catch civilians up in a broad dragnet, its tactics look pretty familiar.

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

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Snowden Wins Asylum, WikiLeaks Declares Victory

And just like that, Edward Snowden's Moscow airport vacation is over.

On Thursday, the NSA leaker's lawyer put him in a taxi and sent him off to a secret location, ending a 39-day stay in Sheremetyevo Airport's so-called "transit zone." Russian migration authorities granted Snowden a one-year temporary asylum, and Anatoly Kucherena, the Russian lawyer who has been assisting his asylum application, proudly displayed a copy of that document for reporters at the airport.

According to Kucherena, Snowden's departure from the airport remained as anonymous as his stay there. Kucherena put him in a taxi, and no one seems to have noticed. "I put him in a taxi 15 to 20 minutes ago and gave him his certificate on getting refugee status in the Russian Federation," Kucherena told Reuters. "He can live wherever he wants in Russia. It's his personal choice."

Where he will stay now remains unclear. Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela -- all of which have embassies in Moscow -- have offered to shelter Snowden, but Kucherena says the former NSA contractor won't be taking a cue from Julian Assange and holing up in a diplomatic compound. "He is the most wanted man on planet Earth. What do you think he is going to do? He has to think about his personal security. I cannot tell you where he is going," Kucherena told Reuters.

The asylum decision for Snowden comes on the heels of Bradley Manning's conviction on five counts of espionage -- a chain of events that has probably produced mixed emotions at WikiLeaks headquarters today. On the one hand, the whistleblower whose disclosures made WikiLeaks a household name now faces a stiff jail sentence; on the other, Snowden's asylum victory gives WikiLeaks, which claims to have been intimately involved in his legal strategy, a much-needed win. WikiLeaks, whose major disclosures have dried up in recent years, has now hitched its star to offering Snowden legal advice. Throughout the Snowden saga, the organization has eagerly thrust itself into the center of the action, and that trend continued on Thursday with a series of tweets from the group's official account:

 

 

That last claim -- that Snowden left with WikiLeaks lawyer Sarah Harrison -- contradicts a statement by Snowden's Russian lawyer, Kucherena, that the leaker was alone when he put him in the cab. Why Kucherena and WikiLeaks would contradict each other on this point is not entirely clear, though some evidence of tension between the two camps has recently emerged. Kucherena has been widely described in media accounts as Snowden's lawyer, but in a conference call with reporters last Friday Assange said that he didn't think it was entirely accurate to describe Kucherena as his main legal advisor, noting that Harrison has been actively involved in the case.

The reason for WikiLeaks territoriality is fairly obvious. Snowden is an international celebrity, and the group is smart enough to realize when it needs to hold on to a good PR moment. Whether that is in Snowden's interest is another issue entirely. So far, however, his strategy to evade the clutches of the U.S. government is working out remarkably well.

Perhaps, somewhere in Moscow, Snowden, Harrison, and Kucherena are knocking back vodkas and caviar. That would seem a fitting end to the Snowden airport affair.

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