Arrest of activist in UAE marks a new low in state repression of civic freedoms


In March 2017, the arrest of award-winning human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor, marked a new low in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities’ efforts to curtail freedom of expression. On 20th March 2017, Mansoor was arrested and transferred to an unknown location after security forces had stormed his home and confiscated his belongings. He was arrested on charges of “using social media [including Twitter and Facebook] sites to publish false and misleading information that harm national unity and social harmony and damage the country’s reputation" as well as "promoting a sectarian and hate-incited agenda”. His whereabouts remained unknown for more than a week.

Mansoor's arrest caused a wave of international outcry, including calls for his release from the United Nations Special Procedures, members of the European Parliament and various international human rights organisations. On 28th March, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on the situation of human rights defenders, and on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, along with the Working Groups on Arbitrary Detention and on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, released a joint statement on Mansoor's behalf.

The UN Special Procedures mandate holders referred to Mansoor's arrest and detention as a “direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE". In addition to urging the authorities to immediately reveal Mansoor's whereabouts, the mandate holders also called on the authorities to end “the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in the UAE and respect the right of everyone to freedom of opinion and expression, including on social media and the internet".

On 29th March 2017,  Mansoor's whereabouts were finally discovered; he was being held in a detention facility adjacent to Al-Wathba prison. After his arrest, harassment of human rights defenders in UAE did not cease. On that same day, another human rights defender, Nasser Bin Ghaith, was sentenced to ten years in prison for allegedly “communicating with secret organisations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as for creating accounts on social media and publishing photos and articles deemed offensive to the state’s symbols and values, its internal and foreign policies and its relations with an Arab state”. The court also ordered the “confiscation of devices and tools used in the crime, and the closure of online sites that were [allegedly] established by the accused". A prominent economist and academic, Ghaith had been held in solitary confinement since his arrest on 18th August 2015. He has suffered from ill health and denied access to medical treatment while in detention. A coalition of ten prominent human rights NGOs have protested and spoken out about Ghaith's arrest and imprisonment. 

Human rights defender and online activist, Osama Al-Najjar, also remains in detention. Al-Najjar was scheduled for release on 17th March 2017, having served a full three-year prison sentence. However, as reported by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), he has not yet been released. Al-Najjar was arrested in March 2014 for defending his father in the UAE 94 trial, the biggest political trial in UAE's history, when 94 political activists and human rights defenders were put on trial, accused of allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, among other charges.