Retweeting on Twitter or pressing the "like" button on a on a Facebook post that shows sympathy for Qatar can now land you in jail for up to 15 years in the United Arab Emirates.
The new cybercrime law came into effect yesterday, days after the oil-rich kingdom severed diplomatic ties with its neighbor, following Saudi Arabia's lead. The UAE's attorney general, Hamad Said al-Shamsi, released the statement on Wednesday.
The intra-Gulf spat is over Qatar's financial support of terrorist groups in Syria and Libya, and the country's political cover for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as its warming relations with regional heavyweight Iran. The diplomatic quagmire was triggered on May 23 when Qatar News Agency and state TV were hacked attributing quotes to the controversial leader Hamid Al Thani that were pro-Iranian.
The FBI recently concluded that Russian hackers were involved in the operation, but that does not necessarily mean the Russian state was involved, the Guardian reported. The report claimed that some observers have privately said that the UAE or Saudi Arabia could have commissioned the hackers. Both countries have also been major players in supporting counter-revolutionary regimes such as in Egypt and Tunisia and militant groups in the region.
UAE's Attorney General Hamad Al Shamsi announced that the new law—which applies to online sentiments—also carries fines of at least 500,000 Dirhams ($135,000) for expressions of sympathy, which remains a vague legal category.
"This is most drastic measure taken by the authorities," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati political science professor and a government supporter based in Dubai. "We have to go by the law of land, even if it's not to our liking."
Abdulla, who has a sizeable social media presence himself, was detained for 10 days in January after he posted a tweet that was deemed too critical of authorities. Others academics, activists and journalists have also been arrested in recent years for social media activity that does not toe the government line.
Toronto based Citizen Lab found in August 2016 that human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was sent suspicious texts on his IPhone. believed to be from the Emirati government.
Clicking on the link would have installed an Israeli spyware program that would have tracked his movements, monitor his chat apps and access his phone contact list and camera. The sophisticated piece of malware is valued at around $1 million, which led the cybersecurity research group to dub Mansoor "the million dollar dissident".
He has since been arrested in March 2017 on dubious charges for inciting sectarianism and harming the state's reputation on social media.
"They've been very sensitive to criticism. It is is designed to shape the narrative on social media," Bill Marczack, the Citizenlab researcher who revealed the UAE's surveillance efforts, told Motherboard.
He explained that the emboldened measures of the Gulf countries to stifle dissent weeks after Trump's recent visit to Saudi Arabia is not coincidental. "The United States and the United Kingdom have traditionally functioned in putting restraints on GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries," he said. "Ever since Trump has been elected and Brexit, these measures have dramatically lessened."
The timing of the deteriorating relations with Qatar is also curious because the UAE itself was subject to a hack that revealed the emails of Youssef Al Otaiba, Emirati ambassador to the United States and a DC power broker, showing his close coordination with a conservative think tank on how to contain Iran.
The Public Prosecutor's office and the Ministry of Justice did not respond to Motherboard's request for a comment on the latest announcement.
Meanwhile, Abdulla, who has mixed feelings about the cyber clampdown in his country, blames the Qatari leadership for the deterioration of relations. He was expectedly more careful in his criticism of the Emirati authorities.
"Sometimes we just push the envelope too far and there's a price to be paid. I certainly did," he said of his detention for a tweet.
"There's no use to complain. I have gone through it and I have happily learned my lesson."