Ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression: detention, torture, smear campaign & attacks on peaceful activists
The 'UAE5' and the beginning of the crackdown on freedom of expression
Since March 2011, a severe crackdown against human rights defenders, civil society activists and advocates of political reform has been carried out by the authorities in the United Arab Emirates. While the region was undergoing popular uprisings demanding greater civil and political rights, 132 Emiratis citizens signed a petition calling for the election of all the members of the Federal National Council and to give them legislative powers (demanding an elected parliament with legislative powers). Five individuals or the so called "UAE5", including prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, a member of Human Rights Watch's Middle East advisory committee, were arrested and tried in this context. The “UAE 5” were held from April to November 2011. All of them were found guilty of “publicly insulting” the President of the UAE, following a fundamentally unfair trial. Only days after being condemned, their sentences were commuted by Emirati president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and were released, demonstrating the political nature of the trial.
The 'UAE 66 – arbitrary detention and torture of human rights defenders & peaceful political activists
A new wave of arrests began in March 2012 which reaches 66 individuals, composed of human rights defenders and peaceful political activists. Most of these individuals have been detained incommunicado for weeks before being allowed to contact their families; many were mistreated, and in some cases tortured; most have not had access to legal counsel or proper contact with their families, and all have had their detention repeatedly renewed without judicial review of the legality of their detention. Seventy seven of them remain in detention to date – with one individual, Mr Ahmed Abdulkhaleq, a member of the 'UAE 5' and Bedoon rights activist, having being expelled to Thailand on 16 June 2012.
Moreover, all attempts to provide legal assistance to the detainees are undermined by the harassment and intimidation of their lawyers by the authorities. The lawyers of the 'UAE5', Dr Mohamed Al-Roken and Dr Al-Mansoori are now themselves detained as part of the group of 66 individuals mentioned above. Dr Al-Roken was arrested while trying to obtain information about family members who had been arrested. A number of foreign lawyers who attempted to offer legal assistance to the detainees were not allowed into the country.
Latest developments: The day before the UAE UPR session, a parody of judicial proceedings
Yesterday, Sunday 27 January 2013, the Attorney General of the UAE, Salem Saeed Kubaish stated that “94 Emirati suspects have been referred to the Federal Supreme Court as part of the case relating to the organisation which sought to seize power in the country”. After more than 6 months without any judicial proceeding for some of the detainees, they are – the day before the UAE UPR session – accused of charges including “communicating with individuals and international and foreign entities and establishments based outside the State in order to distort the image of the State”, seeking “to disseminate these fabrications through the members of the organisation, the media and the social networking sites on the Internet” and “launch(ing), establish(ing) and run(ning) an organisation seeking to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and to seize power”. These charges closely resemble accusations against human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, with a worrying emphasis on communication via social media and the internet with “establishments based outside the State”.
The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, in 2011, stated:
The Special Rapporteur remains concerned that legitimate online expression is being criminalized in contravention of States' international human rights obligations, whether it is through the application of existing criminal laws to online expression, or through the creation of new laws specifically designed to criminalize expression on the Internet. Such laws are often justified on the basis of protecting an individual's reputation, national security or countering terrorism, but in practice are used to censor content that the Government and other powerful entities do not like or agree with.
Smear campaign launched by the Emirati authorities
It appears that 'national security' has been used as a pretext by the Emirati authorities to stifle dissent and repress all activists asking for democratic reforms and respect for human rights.
The Emirati authorities have since launched a smear campaign against the detainees and their families using state-run media. The individuals are accused by local media, known to be close to the authorities, of being part of a local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and of attempting to create a military wing aimed at establishing an Islamic state in the United Arab Emirates. Families of a number of those detained have also had their bank accounts frozen, leading to understandable stress, beyond that created by the detention of their loved one.
Although some of the detainees are members of Al-Islah (the Reform and Social Guidance Association), a non-violent political movement advocating for political reforms, the other detainees are jurists, law professors at university, lawyers and human rights defenders held solely due to their peaceful and legitimate human rights activities. .
In addition to the 66 peaceful activists detained, other citizens were arrested arbitrarily by the Emirati security services, which brings the total number of people arbitrarily detained to 93, including 12 Egyptian nationals.
Attacks on Human Rights Defenders
In addition to the ongoing detentions of two prominent human rights lawyers, Dr Mohamed Al-Roken and Dr Al-Mansoori, Ahmed Mansoor, one of the UAE5 referred to above, has been subjected to physical assaults at least twice over the past nine months. These attacks are accompanied by a well-organized smear campaign launched against him, including statements by officials claiming that he is an Iranian spy in addition to innumerable threats against him on social networks. He is also unable to travel as the authorities refuse to return his passport.
The use of travel bans, the stripping of nationalities and the disbanding of rights organizations are all methods used by the Emiratis authorities to silence the voices that are calling for reform and respect for public liberties.
In November 2012, Federal Decree No.5/2012 on combating cyber crimes was adopted. This law poses a serious threat to the freedom of expression and assembly of peaceful activists as it provides a definition of online activities which could be used to limit the work of activists who use the internet to express their opinion. The law stipulates penalties of imprisonment on any person who may create or run an electronic site or any information technology means, to deride or to damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions. Our organisations fear that the “fight against cyber-crimes” could be used as a pretext to repress freedom of expression and imprison activists, just as the “fight against terrorism” often has been.
Torture by members of the State Security forces remains a concern, with further allegations being documented as recently as September 2012, such as the cases of Ahmed Al-Suweidi, Abdulelah Al-Jadani and Musab Khalil Abood, which leading human rights organisations including the undersigned denounced. In addition, other individuals arrested in the current crackdown, including Dr Al-Roken's son and son-in-law, have been tortured.
ur organisations are concerned at the large number of unfair trials in the country, beyond the crackdown described above. Numerous individuals continue to be arbitrarily detained without charge, forced to make forced confessions, and in some cases convicted without receiving the minimum guarantees of a fair trial.
Discrimination against the Bedoon community
Although the UAE affirms that efforts to resolve the situation have been made since mid-2008, by facilitating the granting of a nationality other than Emirati nationality, in order to then apply for a residence permit in the UAE, this practice is counter-productive. One of the only countries who is willing to grant nationality to members of the Emirati Bedoon community are the Comoro Islands, after the impoverished island state received large sums of money from the UAE in 2009. However, once individuals take the necessary steps to adopt Comorian nationality, they are often threatened with deportation. Numerous Bedoon remain in retention, waiting for their supposed deportation to the Comoros.
International community condemns the human rights violations committed by the UAE authorities
On 17 July 2012, as the second wave of arrests and detention of peaceful activists was just starting, OHCHR's spokeperson Rupert Colville called the Emirati authorities “to guarantee that human rights defenders are able to carry out their work without fear of reprisals and urge them to release those who have been detained for peaceful exercise of their fundamental human rights”.
The dire human rights situation in the UAE has also been highlighted by a strong resolution  by the European Parliament, which condemned the situation, calling it as a “crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society activists”. It called for “the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience and activists including human rights defenders and calls on the authorities of the United Arab Emirates to ensure that detainees deemed to have broken the law be brought before a judge, be charged with a crime and be provided with the legal assistance of their choosing."
The undersigned human rights organisations therefore urge the authorities to:
1.Release immediately and unconditionally all prisoners of conscience and activists including human rights defenderss or ensure that detainees deemed to have broken the law be brought before a judge, be charged with a crime and be provided with the legal assistance of their choosing.
2.Halt all persecution of human rights defenders and those peacefully expressing their opinions, including On-Line activists. Immediately release and expunge the convictions of those convicted for expressing their opinion peacefully and Ensure that Federal Legal Decree No. 5 for 2012 on combating cyber crimes is in full conformity with relevant international norms namely the right to freedom of expression and association.
3.Take all necessary measures to ensure that torture and ill-treatment ceases in all places of detention; that all cases of torture be investigate by impartial and independent authorities; and that torturers be held accountable for their crimes.
4.To ensure that all trials meet international fair trial standards, including the full independence of the judiciary, and that all those detained arbitrarily are released as quickly as possible. 5.To end to discrimination against the Bedoon community, including in the application of its nationality law.
6.Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders and activists in UAE are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.
Reporters Without Borders
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Gulf Center for Human Rights