Crackdown: Bahrain Goes After The Blogfather

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Courtesy Mahmood al-Yousif / AP Photo

Bahraini blogger Mahmood al-Yousif working on his laptop at his house in Manama, Bahrain, November 21, 2006.

Updated: April 1, 2011

Mahmood Al Yousif is so influential in Bahrain that he's widely known as the "Blogfather." Neither publicly pro- or anti-government, the moderator of the popular blog "Mahmood's Den" is the rare public figure who actively discourages the Sunni-Shia tension that has plagued the tiny Gulf Kingdom for decades. But on Tuesday morning, Al Yousif apparently was dealt the same fate meted out to many prominent activist. In a pre-dawn raid, police seized the popular moderator of the multimedia site and hauled him off to jail.

His status and whereabouts are unknown, though his son, Arif, has tweeted that his father had phoned from captivity saying he was a "guest" of the government. [Update: Al Yousif was released by Bahrain officials late on March 31; he told Reuters that ""I've been treated well enough. They investigated me but didn't find anything."] It was another iteration of the strong message from the government to desist from speaking out — already framed by reports of security forces pummeling Gulf Air employees known to have participated in anti-government protests; and of the killing of a man opposition party al-Wefaq says was an innocent protester. "The government doesn't want anybody taking information outside the country, so they're starting to target bloggers and activists, whoever speaks out," says Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "Mahmood is a very 'known' guy. They see bloggers as noisemakers and thought that silencing Al Yousif would send a message."

Until today, Al Yousif had seemed to be above arrest, even as high-profile politicians and opposition organizers were systematically targeted and carted off at gunpoint. Several activists had told TIME last week that if so highly visible a man was to be jailed, it would have "already happened." As protests dwindled following Friday's failed attempt at a second "day of rage," Shaikh al-Salman, head of al-Wefaq, told TIME that the protesters would essentially abandon marching on the street (which is a direct violation of martial law) in favor of quieter neighborhood rallies and direct talks with government officials.

Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Insititute in Doha and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, calls Al Yousif's arrest the latest barrier to peaceful talks between the opposition and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, whose ouster protesters had demanded following the regime's use of extreme violence beginning mid-February. The current stalemate "is what happens when you use excessive force," Hamid says. Continuing today, "the Bahrain regime has effectively waged war on its own people and that makes any dialogue in the future considerably more difficult. I don't see how anyone could talk seriously about an inclusive national dialogue given what's going on. Right now, there's no clear endgame. The regime is not going to back down but neither is the opposition."

By targeting citizen journalists, the Bahraini government is also attempting to stem a flood of violent videos and photos making the rounds on YouTube, Twitter and other sites, which show its forces cracking down on protesters and bystanders and which have horrified the international community. "What's been uploaded has embarrased the government," Rajab says. A government spokeswoman refused to comment on the situation.

Though the opposition is temporarily cowed, Hamid says it "won't last indefinitely." Al Yousif's arrest has served to reinvigorate the Bahraini activist network, which had all but fallen off the map over the weekend as the world watched violence unfold in other parts of the Arab world. The regime "wants to commit its crime in silence," Rajab says. "They're taking advantage now that the whole world is busy in Libya. They want to get the job finished as soon as possible, so they're out to get everyone." In the meantime, the social media is rallying to win Al Yousif's release. A popular hashtag on Twitter today is "#FreeMahmood."