Stifling Dissent in the UAE

UAE detainees

A number of those who have been detained. Photo UAEdetainees

Freedom of association is severely curtailed in the UAE. Political organizations (including political parties) and trade unions are illegal. All associations and NGOs are required to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs; about 100 such groups are registered, most of them associations for economic, religious, socialcultural, and athletic purposes. More than twenty unregistered local, non-political NGOs operate in the country. Associations are required to observe censorship guidelines and receive prior government approval for any publication. Lawful associations have little real power or influence and are generally under government control. Local NGOs lack independence or face severe limitations.

International NGOs are also facing restrictions. In April 2012, the authorities closed the Dubai office of the US-funded National Democratic Institute. Other foreign-funded pro-democracy institutes, including the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, ceased their activities on the orders of the UAE Foreign Ministry. In December 2012, the Abu Dhabi office of the RAND Corporation, an American policy-research institute, was shut down.

Since 2011, when several citizens petitioned President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan for political reforms, a pattern of harassment, arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearances have emerged. Ninety-four citizens were facing trial in 2013, having been charged with running an organization aimed at overthrowing the government. Sixty-nine were convicted in July 2013. The Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced them to prison terms of seven to fifteen years. International human-rights organizations have characterized the trials as unfair, because the authorities denied family members, human-rights organizations, and international media access to the court.

The campaign against pro-democracy activists was not limited to this trial. The UAE authorities have also targeted those who campaigned for the release of the so-called UAE 94. Osama al-Najjer, the son of one of the defendants, was arrested in March 2014 and sentenced to three years in prison for Twitter posts defending his father. He had no right to appeal the verdict. In February 2015, three women, who had been campaigning on Twitter for the release of their brother Issa al-Suwaidi, disappeared. The sisters were detained and their whereabouts were unknown. On 15 May 2015, they were released, but it was unknown what pressure the three had been subjected to while in detention, whether they were charged with any offence, and whether their release carried any conditions. What is certain, according to Amnesty International, is that they have been punished for their peaceful tweets with enforced disappearance, which is a crime under international law.

UAE authorities have used the 2012 cybercrime law to prosecute these Twitter users and other critics of the government. In August 2014, the UAE issued a counter-terrorism law that will, according to Human Rights Watch, give authorities the power to prosecute as terrorists peaceful critics, political dissidents, and human-rights activists.

In addition to UAE nationals, authorities have prosecuted non-Emiratis who have lived in the country for decades. Foreign nationals from countries that have experienced dramatic changes and in which the UAE has played an important role (particularly Egypt and Libya) were deported. Others were arrested, even if they were only in transit at a UAE airport. UAE security forces arrested nine Libyans at their homes and hotels in August and September 2014, without producing arrest warrants.

This trend is part of the harsh campaign against anyone who demands political reform—including the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters—inside or outside the UAE. The UAE is one of the powers in the region, including Egypt and Libya, that oppose the Arab revolutions, especially when Muslim Brotherhood is involved.

According to the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR), this reflects alarming hostility against pro-democracy activists and the fear felt by the authorities. The AOHR has obtained testimonies from defendants to the effect that they were tortured and otherwise abused in UAE prisons. The abuses they had been subjected to amounts to torture as defined by the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The abuses include:

-solitary confinement for weeks or months in very small cells (2 x 3 metres)

-being forced to go to the public toilets blindfolded and naked

-severe beatings

-verbal abuse and death threats.

Torture is illegal and is prohibited in Article 26 of the constitution, but the UAE is criticized for permitting, investigating inadequately, or not strongly prosecuting cases of torture. UAE Sharia courts sentence to flogging persons found guilty of drug use, adultery, and prostitution, in all emirates except Dubai, where flogging is illegal.

June 15th, 2014  /   June 22nd, 2015