Guatemalan fears a tweet will make him a jailbird

Jean Anleu was so fed up with corruption in his country that he decided to vent on the Internet, sending a 96-character message on the social-networking site Twitter.

That message has now earned him a potential five-year prison sentence and the unfortunate distinction of becoming one of the first people in the world to be arrested for a tweet.

Writing under his Internet alias "jeanfer," Anleu urged depositors to pull their money from Guatemala's rural development bank, whose management has been challenged in a political scandal: "First concrete action should be take cash out of Banrural and bankrupt the bank of the corrupt."

These words illegally undermined public trust in Guatemala's banking system, according to prosecutor Genaro Pacheco. Authorities proved Anleu sent the message by searching his Guatemala City home, and then put him in prison with kidnappers, extortionists and other dangerous criminals for a day and a half before letting him out on bail.

Anleu's lawyer, Jose Toledo, believes the government wants to make an example of him.

"Clearly, the message was: Watch out, any of you guys that want to post messages, this can happen to you. ... It was a dissuasive measure," Toledo said.

Guatemala, whose democracy is still emerging from a genocidal civil war, isn't the only government concerned about the potential of lightning-fast tweets to spread stinging words.

More recently, Iran has shown its determination to clamp down on huge protests over its disputed presidential election, banning firsthand reporting by international journalists and blocking access inside the country to websites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as many sites linked to the political opposition. Text messaging has been blacked out and cellphone service in Tehran is frequently down.

More than 2,000 people have been arrested in Iran, many of them for Internet activity, estimates Hadi Ghaemi, director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

"I can't say I know of a specific case of tweeting," said Ghaemi, noting that Iran's government has not yet filed charges. "Evidence may be a tweet or something but we're just not going to know until these trials are underway."

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone declined to comment on the Anleu case or say whether he knows of other arrests involving tweeting.

China and Vietnam are two other countries that already "worry a lot about text messaging and its potential to spread rumors and gather crowds. Now they have another venue to watch — another place where people can communicate quickly, in ways that a government might fear," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

For Anleu — a geeky computer enthusiast whose passions include playing chess and reading Czech author Franz Kafka— life has taken on some disturbing parallels to Kafka's "The Trial," whose protagonist struggles to defend himself against the power of the state.

"I fear I'm being watched and scrutinized in everything I say and do," said Anleu, who walks around with an iPhone to constantly tweet and a BlackBerry loaded with e-books. "The fear makes me want to avoid saying what I think, even about the most mundane topics, and saying where I am, where I'm going — like you would normally do on Twitter."

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