Alia Abdulnoor’s tragic death from breast cancer while detained in UAE represents a sickening injustice even by the standards of the region. She died after repeated pleas from both human rights groups and the United Nations fell on deaf ears.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), like many of its neighbors, presents itself as an attractive place to live, work and invest; a place where beautiful weather, an unregulated financial market and large salaries can provide expats with a dream lifestyle. It is a facade that many have bought into, and every year huge numbers flock to the Gulf to make a new life in the sun. This rosy picture however, hides a darker truth. 

The death of Alia Abdulnoor on Sunday, May 5 serves as a chilling reminder of the reality of life in the Gulf.

The death of Alia Abdulnoor on Sunday, May 5 serves as a chilling reminder of the reality of life in the Gulf. Abdulnoor was serving a prison sentence for allegedly funding terrorist groups. In a statement earlier this year, Human Rights Watch said that Abdulnoor family believe her arrest “was connected to small donations she made to Syrian families in 2011 at the outset of the Syrian uprising.” Shortly after her arrest on July 29, 2015, Abdulnoor was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. 

Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) say Abdulnoor’s activities amounted to raising “funds to help needy Syrian families in the UAE and war-affected women and children in Syria.” They claim that she was secretly detained in solitary confinement, during which time “she was tortured and forced to sign a confession.” Abdulnoor, who was allegedly interrogated while blindfolded and shackled, was not even informed of her charges until September 5, 2016—more than a year after her arrest. On May 15, 2017 she was tried and convicted on the basis of her forced “confession” and sentenced to ten years in prison.

Alia Abdulnoor’s Poster prior to her death

On February 12, 2019, several United Nations Special Rapporteurs sent an urgent appeal through the OHCHR to the government of the UAE concerning the torture and ill treatment of Abdulnoor and two other women, Amina Ahmed Saeed Al-Abdouli and Maryam Suliman Al-Balushi. This appeal was reiterated on February 26. The human rights experts called on the UAE to release the 41 year-old, so that she could spend her final days with her family, who believe the Emirati state to be responsible for the deterioration of her health. Some have claimed that her relatives were prevented from visiting her on several occasions and that her closest family members were not even informed when she was transferred from Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi to Tawam Hospital, in the southeastern city of Al Ain on January 10, 2019. 

“The UAE authorities have systematically refused to release Alya Abdulnoor on medical grounds despite the multiple demands submitted by her family and the call of UN experts and civil society organisations for her release on medical grounds, to allow her to live her last days with her family,” said The International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR) on its website.

Family members allege that Alia’s guards told them that her chains would not be removed until she was dead.

Many human rights groups were also concerned that Abdulnoor was suffering inhuman and degrading treatment in hospital, amid reports from her relatives that, despite being diagnosed only shortly after her arrest, she had been chained to her bed, kept under strict surveillance, and denied the medical care she needed. Family members allege that Alia’s guards told them that her chains would not be removed until she was dead. Her mother claims that she was not permitted to visit her daughter during her final days. UAE authorities deny these claims. A spokesperson for the UAE public prosecutor said that Abdulnoor died while receiving medical treatment in the oncology department of the Tawam hospital.

The OHCHR report states: “The family alleges that the medical facility at Mafraq hospital routinely and deliberately sedated Ms. Abdulnour into an unconscious state to prevent her from protesting about her lack of proper medical treatment.” According to Human Rights Watch, hospital authorities said Abdulnoor was refusing cancer treatment and had even undertaken a hunger strike. Her family denied these claims, saying she was forced to sign a document refusing treatment. The ICJHR reported that she was given painkillers but no specific treatment for her cancer. 

London-based international justice chambers Guernica 37 wrote to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, detailing how Abdulnoor’s rights had been violated. Guernica 37’s communication, dated September 7, 2017, was followed by another on November 29, 2017, the latter addressed to the European Parliament. Sadly, these pleas, like all others, fell on deaf ears. 

Barrister Toby Cadman, himself based at the chambers, told Inside Arabia:

“The case truly exemplifies the state of human rights protection in the United Arab Emirates.  Alia Abdulnoor Mohammed Abdulnoor was a young woman who was convicted in a judicial system that can only be characterized as a flagrant denial of justice.  She died in prison and her death was most likely accelerated by the appalling medical care she received. This demonstrates a total disregard for human life.  The UAE speaks of the rule of law, it speaks of a paradise in the sand and it speaks of unparalleled commercial opportunities. The reality is quite different. She was not afforded a fair trial.  She was, up to her death, arbitrarily detained. She was mistreated during her detention and she was not afforded adequate medical care. The Emirati authorities must take full responsibility for her death. We petitioned the UN, UK and EU.  The UAE disregarded all pleas for mercy in the most callous of circumstances. Like many, I am utterly appalled.”

Regardless of the details of Alia Abdulnoor’s mistreatment, the circumstances of her death are a stain on the reputation of the UAE, a reputation already besmirched by myriad alleged human rights abuses. It is the hope of many activists that, even though time ran out for Alia and her family, with sustained pressure time will finally be called on an Emirati regime that appears to regard human rights as an occupational hazard. 

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This is part of a series of articles that appear on Fridays on the treatment of foreign nationals and others whose human and civil rights are being violated every day in the United Arab Emirates.