Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Freedom of Expression and Association Under Threat in the UAE

UAE- International Security exhibition
An Emirati man walks past riot police equipment at the International Security and National Resilience exhibition and conference in Abu Dhabi. Photo AFP

A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights  has highlighted the suppression of freedom of expression and the lack of justice in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This report was presented and discussed on 23 January 2018 during the 29th Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review Working Group session in Geneva, Switzerland.

According to many human rights organizations, the authorities continue to restrict freedoms of expression and association through the judiciary system. Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its 2017 report on the Gulf state, wrote: ‘UAE residents known to have spoken with international rights groups are at serious risk of arbitrary detention and imprisonment. The UAE’s 2014 counterterrorism law provides for the death penalty for people whose activities are found to “undermine national unity or social peace”, neither of which are defined in the law.’ Arbitrary detention can also lead to torture and mistreatment, as HRW reported: ‘A group of United Nations human rights experts, including the special rapporteur on torture, the special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, and the chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, criticized the UAE’s treatment of five Libyan nationals who had been held in arbitrary detention since 2014. The special rapporteur on torture said he had received credible information that authorities subjected the men to torture.’

The Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) assesses and monitors on a daily basis the cases of human rights defenders arbitrarily arrested by the authorities in the Gulf countries. In the UAE, the cases they are following the closest are Mohammed al-Roken, a lawyer detained since 2012 who has been awarded the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize, Osama al-Najjar, who was supposed to have been released last March 2017, Obaid al-Zaabi, who was released in December 2017, more than three years after being found innocent, academic Dr Nasser bin Ghaith, who has been sentenced to ten years in jail for ‘posting false information’, and Ahmed Mansour, a member of the GCHR. The defendants are mostly charged with terrorism, if they are charged with anything at all.

“In March 2017, prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was arrested and his whereabouts remain unverified,” Sima Watling, a campaigner for Amnesty International in the Middle East and North Africa, told Fanack Chronicle. “He has had no access to a lawyer and has only been allowed two short family visits. He is a prisoner of conscience. On 17 September 2017, he was brought to the public prosecution building in Abu Dhabi, where his family met him briefly for the second time following a first supervised visit on 3 April 2017. Even though the authorities claim that he is being held at Central Prison, his exact place of detention remains unverified. [He] still has no access to a lawyer, and since his arrest has been detained in solitary confinement, which amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and possibly torture. Amnesty International fears for his safety.”

Such arrests instill a fear of talking openly, Watling explained: “Prior to his detention, Ahmed Mansoor was the last human rights defender in the UAE brave enough to keep speaking about the human rights violations in the country. Since his detention, information is very difficult to obtain. Over the past couple of years, the media reporting on cases have stopped mentioning names of defendants in cases, making it more difficult to follow up on them. This is added to the fact that people are afraid of speaking out.”

“Even criminals have more rights than activists,” GCHR Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim told Fanack Chronicle. “Some are arrested just for peaceful tweets! People are not allowed to talk.” He gave the example of the UAE 94, a group of academics, rights defenders, social activists and lawyers who are all in prison for signing a letter calling for more freedom. GCHR issued a report on torture and abuse in prison in March 2015, based on research and including 150 pages of documentation with the testimonies of 56 detainees, covering incidents from 2012 to 2014.

“Once the government witnessed the so-called Arab Spring, it got scared so it put all the defendants in jail, all the people reporting human rights violations,” Ibrahim added. “It’s a scandal, this country. All defendants should be released if the UAE wants to be compatible with its public proclamations towards international relations.”

Amnesty International is also asking for concrete actions with regards to these prisoners, and full cooperation with the United Nations human rights mechanism, by extending an invitation to the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders to conduct visits without restriction on duration and scope, and ensure no one is arbitrarily arrested or detained. “The human rights situation has deteriorated in the UAE despite the authorities claiming the contrary,” Watling said. “The authorities continue to arbitrarily restrict freedoms of expression and association, using criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws to detain, prosecute, convict and imprison government critics. The international community should stop being impressed by the glamour and glitz and putting economic interests first.” So far, the UAE has not addressed these concerns or responded to the accusations made by rights organizations.

Some of the UAE 94 members were accused of setting up the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the UAE, a charge the group has always denied. The UAE has come down hard on alleged and actual members of the Muslim Brotherhood, fearing its (quasi-) democratic ambitions and opposition to the royal families currently in power. Dr Azzam Tamimi, a British Palestinian activist, said, “The UAE considers the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization; they don’t accept anything related to them, going so far as to expel non-UAE citizens connected with the organization and jailing the others, even torturing them.” He added, “Mohammed bin Zayed [crown prince of Abu Dhabi] thinks it’s his holy war to defeat the Muslim Brothers, because the UAE feels threatened by the Arab Spring and any Islamic political party taking power after it. They are concerned the same thing that happened in Tunisia and Egypt would happen there too. But now, the Muslim Brothers have been nearly eradicated in the UAE.”

Most countries with ties to the UAE seem to have turned a blind eye when it comes to human rights violations. The United Kingdom, for example, has signed up for  a collaborative and extensive arts programme with the UAE, which critics say is as much about lubricating the easy flow of capital between the two countries. France, meanwhile, has been accused of ignoring the fate of migrant workers during the construction of an outpost of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi. Although decrees were issued in 2016 to establish proper rules for contract termination, migrant workers remain at great risk under the kafala or visa sponsorship system that ties workers to their employers and is prone to abuse.

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