UAE continues relentless oppression of dissent despite proclamation of tolerance


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) proclaimed 2019 as the ‘Year of Tolerance.’ However, the concerted efforts of the Emirati authorities to promote the country as a platform for tolerance and freedom of expression is at odds with the unrelenting oppression of dissenting voices within the UAE. Most strikingly, all known human rights defenders continue to languish in prison in intolerable conditions for exercising their right to freedom of expression by publicly condemning human rights violations.

From 25th – 28th February 2020, the UAE played host to the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi. The Hay Festival is a longstanding international celebration of arts and sciences, bringing together writers, readers and thinkers to celebrate freedom of expression and intercultural dialogue. The Abu Dhabi edition of the festival was supported by the Ministry of Tolerance. This contradiction has not escaped the attention of civil society. On 24th February 2020, over 60 CSOs, including CIVICUS, the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), and Amnesty International addressed an open letter to the Emirati authorities demanding respect for the right to freedom of expression by freeing all human rights defenders imprisoned for expressing themselves peacefully online. The letter was also signed by Hay Festival participants including Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka and Ahmed Galai, Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, and poets Serge Pey and Pierre Joris, in addition to intellectual Noam Chomsky andBritish author and actor Stephen Fry, the Hay Festival’s President.

The open letter, which was co-organised by ICFUAE and GCHR, was not accessible to participants at the festival on either of the two CSOs’ websites, as they remain blocked in the UAE. Notably, there was no coverage in the local media or on official channels about appeals by participants for human rights defenders to be freed, including in an impassioned speech by Ahdaf Soueif, who said

“It’s very important that cultural events are not used to paper over the injustices… but are actually used to highlight their case.”

The UAE’s most prominent human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor, remains in Al-Sadr prison, Abu Dhabi, where he is serving a 10-year prison sentence, having been convicted of “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leaders” in retaliation against his peaceful human rights work, including posts on social media, as previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor. Since his arrest on 20th March 2017, Mansoor has been held continuously in solitary confinement in an isolation ward, with no bed or access to books. Despite the ongoing efforts of civil society and United Nations experts to ensure that his detention conditions comply with international human rights standards, he has only been permitted to leave his cell for a small number of family visits and was granted permission to go outside for sunlight and exercise on one occasion following a hunger strike in March 2019 that was widely publicised by GCHR and other CSOs.

Mansoor has undertaken two hunger strikes in protest against his appalling detention conditions, the latest of which began in September 2019 following a beating. The lack of an independent civil society in the UAE makes it difficult to verify his current situation but according to the latest reports by GCHR, Mansoor’s physical and psychological health has severely deteriorated and as of January 2020 he continued to refuse solid food, leaving him unable to walk. UAE authorities have continuously refused to grant access to independent experts or monitors to visit Ahmed in prison. Other human rights defenders face similar mistreatment and inhumane detention conditions, and risk being held in detention past the end of their sentences.

Dr Mohammed Al-Roken, a human rights lawyer and outspoken critic of human rights abuses in the UAE, is serving a 10-year prison sentence at Al-Razeen prison in the desert of Abu Dhabi for signing an online petition calling for political reform. He was convicted during a mass trial of 94 people including human rights lawyers, judges and human rights defenders. A fellow lawyer, Dr Mohammed Al-Mansoori was convicted alongside Dr Al-Roken and is also serving a 10-year prison sentence. Dr Al-Roken and Dr Al-Mansoori continue to endure solitary confinement in Al-Razeen prison, deprived of regular family visits and subject to intrusive physical searches.

Al-Razeen prison, nicknamed the “Guantanamo of the UAE”, “is notorious for its dire detention conditions and its ill-treatment of inmates, many of whom are prisoners of conscience,” reports ICFUAE. The winter months are particularly brutal, where prisoners suffer freezing cold temperatures at night.

The UAE’s eagerness to portray an open and tolerant image is further compromised by its ongoing detention of the academic and economist, Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Paris Sorbonne University. He is also serving a 10-year prison sentence for publishing online posts concerning human rights violations in the UAE.

The Dubai Expo, which will run from October 2020 to April 2021, is another important international event which will be held in the UAE this year. The official website of the upcoming Expo 2020, states that this event will showcase the UAE’s “values of inclusion, tolerance and cooperation.”

The open letter expressed hope that the values promoted by the Hay Festival and Dubai Expo 2020 might lead to respect for freedom of expression, a more open civil society and the unconditional release of Ahmed Mansoor, Dr Mohammed Al-Roken, Dr Mohammed Al-Mansoori, Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith and all human rights defenders who are arbitrarily detained in the UAE.

In separate developments, in December 2019, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting the targeting by the state security apparatus of relatives of eight UAE dissidents, none of whom could be named in the report for security reasons. Some of them are relatives of prisoners, who could risk reprisals, and others are related to dissidents who have moved abroad. The government has revoked the citizenship of 19 relatives of two dissidents, and at least 30 relatives of six dissidents are currently banned from travelling. In addition, 22 relatives of three dissidents are not permitted to renew their identity documents, which means they cannot get jobs or enroll in higher education.

In October 2019, WhatsApp revealed that it had been the vehicle for spyware produced by the Israeli firm NSO Group that was used to target more than 100 human rights activists worldwide in April and May 2019, including in the UAE. 

Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech, said:

“These latest revelations underscore that NSO Group continues to profit from its spyware products being used to intimidate, track and punish scores of human rights defenders across the globe,” including the UAE."  

Ahmed Mansoor became known as the “million-dollar dissident” after he was targeted by NSO spyware in 2016, requiring Apple to create a patch for the iphone vulnerability. Amnesty International joined a lawsuit against NSO Group.