The Plight of Human Rights Defenders in the UAE: Squalid Prison Conditions and Government Reprisals

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is considered to be one of the most difficult countries in the world for human rights defenders (HRDs) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). Their ability to operate freely in the country and to engage with the international community in order to advance human rights is constantly obstructed and restricted by the government.

Despite being a highly developed country with a competitive economy with ties to western democratic countries, it is clear that the UAE systematically fails to promote and respect fundamental freedoms. ADHRB has long documented patterns of reprisals against HRDs who engaged with the UN Human Rights system. This is particularly true at the Human Rights Council (HRC), and especially so if they are attempting to highlight problems that they and other HRDs face in order to exercise their right to freedom of expression. Due to their multilateral UN engagement, HRDs have had their voices silenced, their liberties deprived through incommunicado arrests and detentions, and have had travel bans and harsh sentences imposed upon them as a punishment for their fight for human rights. ADHRB has reported and condemned these actions, showing a systematic and growing pattern of repression that has affected HRDs in the UAE for far too long.

Since 2011, Emirati authorities have embarked upon a campaign of repression fixating around freedom of expression, assembly and association. This has in turn resulted in the considerable shrinking of CSOs’ activities, both on the national and international level. For example, through CSO’s engagement at the UN Human Rights Council. ADHRB has fully assessed the UAE in its Third Cycle UPR,, and concluded that the country has largely failed to implement related recommendations in respect to the freedom of expression. As a result, there has been little to no improvement in this sphere of human rights enforcement.

Government reprisals against those advocating for freedom of expression have taken various forms. Article 19 is a prominent CSO that focuses on the freedom of expression, and reported on how Emirati authorities have extensively used privately manufactured technology to unlawfully target HRDs through the use of mass surveillance. This technology has been used to arrest, detain, and prosecute defenders by charging them with security-related or broad cybercrime charges in trials that have failed to meet international fair trial standards.

Travel bans have also been extensively employed by UAE authorities to stop HRDs in their international engagement efforts. This form of reprisal has been a common practice since 2012 when many HRDs were prevented from crossing UAE borders to travel to human rights conferences. They would discover that travel bans were being placed against them without prior notice, discovering the situation only upon reaching the airport. Instances reported by HRW consisted of the systematic harassment of HRDs’ family members; particularly of those that have moved abroad to continue their human rights work. These types of reprisals consisted of the revocation of citizenship, travel bans, and many were barred from renewing their identity documents. Moreover, the relatives of all HRDs targeted faced restrictions on their access to jobs or higher education. For this reason, many international actors like the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the UAE, among other countries, to stop all form of harassment against HRDs. This included the lifting of any imposed travel bans, urging the country to guarantee that HRDs were able to carry out their human rights work, both nationally and internationally without fear of government retaliation.

In September 2019, the annual report of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, stated that reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN mechanisms need to be released. Guterres also commented on the plight of Emirati HRDs, who by engaging with the UN were advocating for betterment of human rights within the country. The report also shed light on the extensive use of arbitrary detention as a method of reprisal; particularly emphasising how many HRDs face solitary confinement or are in underground cells without access to natural light. In addition, the report also highlighted other forms of government retaliation such as the use of torture, rape and other physical abuses. So serious were these instances of retribution, that Alia Abdulnoor died whilst in captive custody. Ms Abdulnoor was imprisoned and subject to ill-treatment due to her international advocacy work and was an active participant in the UN human rights monitoring bodies.

In the previous annual report of 2017, the UN Secretary-General expressed concerns about the secret detention of Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent HRD. His detention was viewed as an act of reprisal due to his collaboration with the Human Rights Council, UN special procedures, the universal periodic review mechanism and UN treaty bodies.  On May 7 2019, UN experts expressed grave concern over Mr Mansoor’s physical well-being and the poor conditions of his detention in the UAE. On October 22, 2019, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, and over 135 other organizations called on the UAE to release Ahmed Mansoor, who had been held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, HRDs in the UAE continue to face abysmal detention conditions, which place them amongst the most at risk to the virus. Emirati prison authorities consistently violate internationally agreed standards such as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. These guidelines prohibit overcrowding, conditions of poor sanitation and inadequate, or non-existent, medical care – conditions that are commonplace in detention facilities in the country. For instance, Ahmed Mansoor is currently being held in a 2 square meter cell in al-Sadr’s isolation ward and is lacking basic necessities including a mattress to sleep on. Another HRD, Dr Nasser bin Ghait, is also being held in squalid conditions, and is currently held at al Razeen prison, often referred to as “the Guantanamo of the UAE”. In their current state, both prisoners are highly susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

As demonstrated, the UAE applies a policy of zero tolerance towards criticism to the country’s worsening human rights situation and demands made for democratic reforms. HRDs in the UAE have been and will continue to be subject to reprisals for their human rights activism if the international community does not intervene. The international community has a moral duty to raise its voice on behalf of all those in the UAE who cannot do so, particularly, on behalf of all civil society actors who would like to engage with the UN HRC and its mechanisms. States should pressure the Emirati authorities to: immediately and unconditionally release all HRDs, allow independent civil society actors to carry out their work in promoting human rights, and ensure without reservation that all HRDs in the UAE can carry out their human rights activities without fear of reprisals.