CIVICUS

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United Arab Emirates

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Last updated on 12.10.2020 at 08:30

The Civic Space Developments

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Arbitrary detention, judicial harassment and unfair trials stifling expression

Arbitrary detention, judicial harassment and unfair trials stifling expression

prisoner of conscience Mahmoud Al-Hosani remains in prison despite having been scheduled for release on 16th July 2019, after serving his full seven-year prison sentence; writer Youssef Khalifa Al-Youssef, was summoned by the State Security Department on charges of cooperation with an organisation that threatens state security ; Prisoner of conscience Fahd Abdul Qadir Al-Hajri who was due to be released from prison on 2nd March 2020 after serving a seven-year sentence, and his brother, Abdullah Al-Hajri, who was eligible for release on 16th July 2019 remain in prison despite expiry of their prison sentences

Expression

Freedom of expression continues to be severely restricted as authorities crack down on critics and dissenters.

On 14th September 2020, the Emirates Centre for Human Rights (ECHR) reported that prisoner of conscience Mahmoud Al-Hosani remains in prison despite having been scheduled for release on 16th July 2019, after serving his full seven-year prison sentence. Al-Hosani works in radio and television broadcasting and was a supporter of a petition for reform launched by a group of Emiratis including academics, lawyers, judges, teachers, activists, university students and others. According to the report, the authorities claim that he continues to pose a ‘terrorist threat’, so they placed him in a counselling centre at Al-Razeen jail, depriving him of his right to appeal this decision.

18th August 2020 marked the fifth anniversary of the arrest of human rights defender Dr Nasser Bin Ghaith by Emirati security forces in relation to a tweet criticising the Egyptian authorities. After his arrest, Dr Bin Ghaith remained forcibly disappeared for a period of almost nine months and was denied access to his family, his lawyer and to medical treatment. On 29th March 2017, Dr Bin Ghaith was sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Cybercrime Law and the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2014, having been convicted of “committing a hostile act against a foreign state”. According to the ECHR, his trial was marred by many violations of the right to a fair trial. In addition to the poor conditions in which he is being held, Bin Ghaith's health has reportedly worsened by the withholding of blood pressure medication and medical negligence inside Al-Razeen prison.

In August 2020, writer Youssef Khalifa Al-Youssef was summoned by the State Security Department on charges of cooperation with an organisation that threatens state security and of financing the international organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Youssef is known for his articles and books that criticise corruption in the United Arab Emirates and other oil-producing countries in the region. He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom and specialises in trade and development in oil economics. He was due to be brought before the Abu Dhabi Federal Appeal Court of the State Security Department on 16th September 2020.

On 30th July 2020, on the occasion of Eid Al Adha, the President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, pardoned 515 prisoners. However, this list failed to include any prisoners of conscience, human rights defenders, bloggers, activists and lawyers. A month before, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, the International Service for Human Rights, the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) released the submission they had prepared for the United Nations Committee against Torture, which was postponed until April 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, on 26th June 2020, the four human rights groups stated that the United Arab Emirates must be held accountable for the torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders and activists in prisons and secret detention centres. The report highlighted the continuing plight of the human rights defender and Advisory Board member of GCHR, Ahmed Mansoor, who is being kept in permanent solitary confinement in unhygienic conditions since he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols, including its leaders” and “publishing false reports and information on social media.” The report also mentioned the torture and abuse of women prisoners of conscience.

Prisoner of conscience Fahd Abdul Qadir Al-Hajri who was due to be released from prison on 2nd March 2020 after serving a seven-year sentence, and his brother, Abdullah Al-Hajri, who was eligible for release on 16th July 2019 remain in prison despite expiry of their prison sentences. The brothers were detained and convicted in the UAE94 case on 2nd March 2013 following a trial that was characterised as containing “recurrent and serious breaches of international fair trial standards.” The UAE94 trial included a group of human rights defenders as well as a number of other activists and academics who were accused of plotting to overthrow the government of the United Arab Emirates. After their arrest, they were placed in secret detention, where many of them are reported to have been tortured. 

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.