The 2011 Arab Spring uprising presented authoritarian regimes in the Middle East with an unprecedented existential crisis. They responded as only they know how – in launching a security crackdown against their perceived and imagined enemies, including activists, critics, and Islamic political leaders.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) panicked more than most, by banning political parties and demonstrations. The UAE also implemented a draconian cybercrime law meant to monitor and apprehend individuals with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, along with those perceived to hold ultraconservative Islamic views.
In 2013, Emirati authorities arrested 94 human rights lawyers, activists, university professors, and students on bogus conspiracy charges that alleged all had plotted to overthrow the government, 68 of whom were sentenced to ten years in prison.
In 2013, Emirati authorities arrested 94 human rights lawyers, activists, university professors, and students on bogus conspiracy charges.
In mid-June, UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor accused the UAE of subjecting these detainees to “enduring conditions that may amount to torture.” While reaffirming the innocence of the five men who remained imprisoned, she added that “They should never have been detained in the first place for legitimately exercising the freedoms that all people are entitled to.”
The UN expert said the detainees are being held in solitary confinement for long periods and often without air conditioning to provide respite from the 110-degree summer temperature.
The detainees include Mohamed al-Mansoori, Hassan Mohammed al-Hammad, Hadif Rashed Abdullah al-Owais, Ali Saeed al-Kindi, and Salim Hamdoon al-Shahhi.
Earlier this year, Lawlor urged the UAE to release human rights defenders Mohamed al-Roken, Naseer Bin Ghaith, and award-winning poet Ahmed Mansoor, saying that not only have the three men been “criminalized and imprisoned for their non-violent and legitimate calls for respect of human rights in the UAE, but also they have been subjected to ill-treatment in prison.”
“Reports I have received indicate that the conditions and treatment that these human rights defenders are subjected to, such as prolonged solitary confinement, are in violation of human rights standards and may constitute torture,” she said in an official statement in February.
Her words were echoed in a report published by US-based Human Rights Watch, with the organization describing the arrest and detention of Mansoor as “a direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE.”
“According to reports at our disposal, throughout his deprivation of liberty, Mr. Mansoor has been kept in solitary confinement, and in conditions of detention that violate basic international human rights standards and which risk taking an irrevocable toll on Mr. Mansoor’s health,” Human Rights Watch further explained.
The 51-year-old poet was arrested in 2017 for “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols, including its leaders” and for “seeking to damage the relationship of the UAE with its neighbors by publishing false reports and information on social media,” according to the government.
His actual crime was a tweet criticizing the UAE government for cracking down on free speech and expression.
“Amid a brutal post-Arab Spring crackdown in the UAE – which has seen scores of government critics arbitrarily detained, forcefully disappeared and imprisoned for raising human rights issues and calling for reforms – Mansoor quickly became a lone voice speaking up for the silenced,” observes Joe Odell for Middle East Eye. “Ahmed would not only document, but publicly speak out about the manifold abuses taking place in the country.”
Amnesty International has also called upon the UAE to end its use of torture and secret detention, and to ensure fair trials.
“The government must prohibit and prevent all forms of torture and other ill-treatment and ensure that all allegations of torture or other ill-treatment are promptly and thoroughly investigated, and those responsible held to account,” says the human rights organization.
In a scathing indictment of the UAE’s criminal justice system, Amnesty said, “Trials remain flawed and unfair.” Moreover, the organization stated that the courts are neither independent nor impartial, “especially when trying cases under broad and sweeping national security provisions in the Penal Code or the cybercrimes or counter-terrorism laws.”
The UAE was a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture in 2012. Yet it has done little to nothing to implement any of the measures emphasized.
It’s important to note that the UAE was a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) in 2012. Yet it has done little to nothing to implement any of the obligations and measures emphasized, as Emirati security forces continue to use torture against anti-government critics and activists.
In fact, the evidence suggests the UAE is executing domestic security policies that run counter to UNCAT guidelines by expanding and implementing laws meant to squash any dissent against the government. This includes the Cybercrime Law, which criminalizes the defaming of Emirate rulers; and the anti-Terrorism Law, which defines “terrorism” as any act that might “antagonize the State,” as observed by the Middle East-based human rights organization Alkarama.
Furthermore, it has amended the Penal Code, to arrest and detain anyone who insults the Crown Prince and his family.
Last year, the wife of Turkish businessman, Mehmet Ali, spoke out about the arrest and torture of her husband, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in the UAE on “trumped-up charges.” She described how they were both handcuffed and covered with dark bags before being taken away to an undisclosed location by “people in plainclothes.”
She was released soon after, but said her husband was beaten up a lot for not talking and subjected to torture.
“They placed iron rods on his back and dunked him in cold water.”
“They placed iron rods on his back and dunked him in cold water. Three days later, they took him to a room. There was someone there who spoke Turkish who was one of them,” Ali said. “They brought a map in front of him, and said, ‘Show us, tell us about America, Qatar, Turkey, Syria.’ He said he was a civilian and did not have any answers. They said, ‘There’s a Train, Equip project in Qatar, did you attend it? Tell me about the training there. How do people get there? How is money transferred from Qatar to Turkey?'”
Ali and her husband’s experiences exemplify the dangerous climate in the UAE, where merely having legitimate business ties to Qatar can land you in prison. Without access to a lawyer or a fair trial, your captors can use torture to extract a false confession from you.
If it can happen to businesspeople, poets, journalists, and human rights activists, it can happen to anyone the UAE government perceives or imagines to be a threat to its repressive rule. Therefore, it is crucial that human rights defenders and others in the international community speak out against the UAE’s flagrant abuses of authority.