Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar was jailed in 2017 in the UAE for a Facebook post criticizing UAE authorities in the context of Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014. Now released, his story provides yet another example of the sorry state of human rights in the Gulf.
Tayseer al-Najjar is a Jordanian journalist and poet. He was recently released from al-Wathba, a notorious prison dubbed the “Guantánamo Bay of the UAE,” just west of Abu Dhabi. His crime? Writing a Facebook post deemed to “insult UAE state symbols.”
Tayseer had originally travelled to Abu Dhabi in 2015 to work for the cultural section of Dar, a local newspaper. “Message to some journalists and writers who do not like the Gazan resistance,” Tayseer wrote on Facebook in 2014. “There is no two rights in one case, but the right one is the Gazan resistance and all else is bad – such as Israel, the UAE, [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi and other regimes that are no longer ashamed of shame itself.” The post was written before Tayseer lived in the UAE.
The UAE has ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights, article 32 of which protects the right to freedom of expression. Article 13 protects the right to a fair trial. In a letter addressed to UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, both Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders said that Tayseer’s detention represented a failure of the UAE to live up to its charter obligations.
Tayseer was arrested and tried for his actions in 2015 and sentenced by the UAE Supreme Court on March 15, 2017. “Jailing a journalist on spurious charges does far more to ‘insult’ the UAE and its symbols than anything Tayseer al-Najjar ever wrote,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The UAE’s president should immediately vacate this senseless sentence and allow al-Najjar to return to his wife and family in Jordan,” Stork continued.
In addition to the Facebook post, the prosecution also cited comments Tayseer made during a private phone-call with his wife, Majida Hourani, which the court alleged were critical of the UAE. The court did not reveal how authorities obtained a record of the calls. Tayseer was charged under Article 29 of the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime law, which criminalizes online posts that show: “intent to make sarcasm or damage the reputation, prestige or stature of the State or any of its institutions.” Offenders under this act face up to 15 years in prison.
In order to be able to convict whomever they wish, UAE authorities often use vague language, such as that employed in this statute to prosecute, a tactic often used by authoritarian regimes.
Notwithstanding that his sentence had been completed on December13, 2018, over three years after he was originally arrested at Abu Dhabi International Airport, Tayseer was detained until February 2019, because his family had not paid a fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).
“Jordan’s foreign ministry and the ambassador in the UAE reached an agreement to release Tayseer without paying the fine. We are a family with a limited income, and we could not afford to pay it. We were surprised by his release,” said Majida Hourani.
It is a common experience of those detained in the Gulf that the power of the states of that region is often enough to cow other national governments into silence, instead of supporting the rights of their citizens.
Tayseer was denied access to a lawyer for more than a year after his arrest.
Tayseer was denied access to a lawyer for more than a year after his arrest. His family, who were kept in the dark about his whereabouts for two months, were not permitted to visit him while he was incarcerated. Tayseer was given one weekly telephone call with which to contact his loved ones. Rights groups were also forbidden from seeing him. Only Jordanian state officials from the UAE embassy were allowed to check in on him on occasion. According to Majida, Tayseer’s only outlet was the occasional use of a poorly stocked library in the prison.
Tayseer’s story is sadly all too familiar in the UAE. Speaking to Middle East Eye, former Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Nicholas McGeehan called the UAE “a police state.”
“You have these squads of people who operate completely outside the rule of law and snatch people off the street, snatch people out of airports, and disappear and torture them based on spurious allegations, or based on their background, or based on their associations that the UAE disapproves of,” McGeehan said.
Tayseer was finally released from detention two months after the completion of his sentence, which in itself represents a further infringement upon his human rights. It is unlikely that he will see any compensation for what happened to him, but he can at least find some solace in being returned safely to his family at long last.
Many who find themselves on the wrong side of the UAE authorities are not so lucky. Nevertheless, what happened to Tayseer al-Najjar forms part of a long list of warnings for anyone considering working or investing in the Gulf state.