CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

United Arab Emirates

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Last updated on 21.02.2019 at 12:13

UAE Overview

The United Arab Emirates is today one of the world’s most repressive environments for civil society activists, as the substantial economic development of recent decades and close relations with many western democracies failed to coincide with increasing respect for fundamental freedoms.

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Activists remain in detention, as Reuters uncover collusion between authorities and hackers

Activists remain in detention, as Reuters uncover collusion between authorities and hackers

Association

On 31st December 2018, human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor’s ten-year prison sentence was upheld by the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court. As previously reported on the Monitor, on 29th May 2018, Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment after using his twitter handle to publish tweets calling for the release of human rights defenders and to expose human rights violations in Yemen and Egypt. Mansoor, who has been in detention since March 2017 had appealed the sentence as UN experts also condemned the conviction.

Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, academic and human rights defender also remains in detention as his health deteriorates. According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Dr. Bin Ghaith has been suffering from chronic symptoms of fatigue and can’t even walk or use his feet. He also has difficulties breathing and he has lost a lot of weight. The prison authorities in Al-Razeen prison continue to deny Dr Bin Ghaith his necessary medication. As previously reported on the Monitor, Bin Ghaith was arrested in August 2015 during a raid on his home and was charged for allegedly “committing a hostile act against a foreign state” in reference to statements he made on Twitter about the authorities and judicial system in Egypt. He was also charged with “posting false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the state and one of its institutions” relating to other statements he made on Twitter. 

Expression

A Reuters investigative report uncovered a deeply concerning collaboration between hackers who have previously worked for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the United Arab Emirate’s State Security Apparatus (SSA). On 30th January 2019, Reuters revealed that Project Raven, a clandestine group of hackers, have been using their knowledge and tools to allegedly aid the UAE government in engage in surveillance of other governments, militants and human rights activists critical of the monarchy.

According to the report, a team of former U.S. government intelligence operatives working for the UAE hacked into the iPhones of activists, diplomats and rival foreign leaders with the help of a sophisticated spying tool called Karma, “in a campaign that shows how potent cyber-weapons are proliferating beyond the world’s superpowers and into the hands of smaller nations”.

Project Raven developed Karma, a tool that grants them remote access to iPhones simply by uploading phone numbers or email accounts into an automated targeting system, successfully hacked the accounts of hundreds of prominent Middle East political figures and activists across the region as well as nationals of the European Union and the U.S. Among those targeted were at least four journalists, including British journalist Rori Donaghy, who has contributed to The Guardian and three U.S. journalists who were not named in the report. 

Association in UAE

Operating a civil society organisation in the UAE is extremely difficult. The authorities tightly control the registration and activity of most organisations. Although state funding is available, vaguely defined laws and sweeping powers for officials mean that CSOs cannot undertake public advocacy on most issues.

Operating a civil society organisation in the UAE is extremely difficult. The authorities tightly control the registration and activity of most organisations. Although state funding is available, vaguely defined laws and sweeping powers for officials mean that CSOs cannot undertake public advocacy on most issues. Participation in CSOs is also limited to Emirati citizens, a rule which effectively discriminates against 90% of the population in the UAE. In practice, most NGOs pursue economic, social and cultural objectives and have close ties to the UAE’s ruling families. Designed to increase intimidation, the authorities in the UAE also target family members of prominent critics, including through arrests and travel bans and the revocation of citizenship. Individual activists regularly face harassment and in recent years the authorities have carried out sweeping raids on large numbers of human rights and pro-democracy activists, including the mass arrest of 94 people who were accused of a plot to overthrow the government. Since 2014, people who disagree with the government and express their dissent publicly also face the prospect of being prosecuted as terrorists under repressive new legislation.

Peaceful Assembly in UAE

The Emirati Constitution guarantees the freedom to assemble peacefully but in practice protests are banned in the UAE.

The Emirati Constitution guarantees the freedom to assemble peacefully but in practice protests are banned in the UAE. Regulations do not clearly stipulate how and for what reasons a gathering should be disbanded. People must obtain permission from the authorities before they gather in public, a clear violation of international standards on the freedom of peaceful assembly. As a result, gatherings are extremely rare although there have been notable cases of workers’ protests in recent months. Spontaneous gatherings are prohibited and authorities have arrested numerous participants of public gatherings. Amendments in 2012 to the UAE’s cyber crime law now mean that people who use the Internet to organise ‘unauthorised’ public demonstrations can be severely punished.

Expression in UAE

Although free speech is constitutionally protected, individuals who publicly criticise the authorities in the United Arab Emirates are routinely arrested, harassed, tortured and disappear.

Although free speech is constitutionally protected, individuals who publicly criticise the authorities in the United Arab Emirates are routinely arrested, harassed, tortured and disappear. Prominent academics including Dr. Issa al-Suweidi and Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith have both been convicted and imprisoned as a direct result of their peaceful human rights advocacy and online commentary in support of a freer society. Speaking openly on social media can also have disastrous consequences, as demonstrated by the ten-year prison sentence imposed on Ahmed Abdulla al-Wahdi, who ran a social media account accused of insulting the UAE’s leadership. The UAE also uses strict blasphemy laws to stifle free speech. In May 2015 they sentenced a man to a year in prison after his Facebook post was deemed to have insulted Islam. Restrictions on free speech imposed by the Printing and Publications Law of 1980 have recently been strengthened through amendments in 2012 to the UAE’s cyber crime law. Under the revised law, users can be jailed if they post content online which criticises the country or its leaders. The authorities heavily censor and monitor online content and have in the past blocked websites, including that of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights in early 2015.