The Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the United Arab Emirates

In February 2021, Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, called for the release of human rights defenders serving long-term prison sentences in the United Arab Emirates. She stated that, “Issuing long-term prison sentences to human rights defenders, in connection to their human rights work, is a practice that cannot continue, and is an issue I will be prioritising during my mandate.”

As a matter of fact, the persecution of human rights defenders in the United Arab Emirates is systematic. Since 2011, the State has increased its repression of fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Indeed, human rights defenders and even their family members are exposed to ill-treatment and reprisals, namely forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, judicial harassment, unfair trials, travel bans, and surveillance.

Originally, the State relied on vague provisions of the Penal Code to criminalize human rights defenders, such as article 176 providing for imprisonment for “whoever publicly insults the state presidents, its flag or national emblem.” This was later broadened under article 8 to include more State authorities. However, in August 2014, the government issued a new Anti-Terrorism Law, expanding the definition of terrorism to emcompass wider peaceful and legitimate activities. Indeed, they defined terrorism as “any act that spreads terror or harms the public or Heads of State or Government officials or seeks to destabilise the general order of society.” This more comprehensive definition allows the authorities to prosecute peaceful protesters, political dissidents, and human rights activists as terrorists.

In the mistreatment of human rights defenders, the Emirati authorities violate many international standards and human rights norms. As mentioned above, the restrictions put in place on dissenting opinions clearly violate the freedom of expression. Indeed, activists are often prosecuted for peaceful political criticism, such as using social media to “publish false information that harms national unity,” or spreading information that the government deems misleading. Moreover, prisoners, especially those related to state security, usually face arbitrary detentions, unfair trials, and inhumane detention conditions. Human rights defenders frequently experience other illegal practices such as a lack of independent investigations, the use of coerced confessions as evidence in trial proceedings, the denial of access to a lawyer, incommunicado detention, prolonged solitary confinement, overcrowded and unhygienic detention centers, the denial of adequate medical care, and even torture and ill-treatment.

On top of restricting the peaceful expression of opinions, and persecuting and mistreating those who dare to make any peaceful criticism, the Emirati government commonly keeps these detainees in prison after the completion of their sentences without any legal justification. According to the Counter-Terrorism Law, those “adopting extremist or terrorist thought” may be indefinitely detained forcounselling.” Among the prisoners that are held in detention despite having completed their sentences are Omran Ali al-Harithi, a defendant in the UAE-94 trial, accused of aiming to overthrow the State’s political system and originally set to be released in July 2019, and Abdullah Ebrahim al-Helou, a prisoner of conscience who was due for release in May 2017. The sentence, based on State security charges, of Ahmed Mohammed Al-Mulla, ended in April 2017, and he is still being held in prison. Khalifa al-Rabea, whose sentence ended in July 2018, is also being held long past his date of release.

These are the names of only a few of the prisoners of conscience that are being kept in prison despite the completion of their sentences. The Emirati authorities are refusing to free them in spite of their release date having passed, claiming that they represent a threat to national security. They are transferred to the counselling division of the prison for rehabilitation reasons. Keeping detainees in prison after the expiration of their sentences is a practice wholly contradictory to international human rights law. Relying on the terrorism law does not justify this practice since these prisoners are, in reality, not terrorists but peaceful protesters.

Regarding the treatment of human rights defenders, a particular case that has drawn a lot of attention from the international community is the persecution of Ahmed Mansoor. He is a human rights defender in the UAE and considered the Emirates’ most celebrated activist in this field. His efforts to raise concerns about subjects such as arbitrary detention, torture, and ill or degrading treatment, unfair trials, lack of independence of the judiciary, and domestic legislation violating international law regrettably sent him to jail in 2017. He was arrested in his house in March 2017 on speech-related charges including “disseminating false information to promote sedition, hatred, and damage to national unity.” In May 2018, after spending more than one year in pre-trial detention, in an unknown location and without access to legal assistance, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his social media posts criticizing the human rights violations carried out by the government. He was convicted of “insulting the ‘status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols’ including its leaders,” and of “seeking to damage the relationship of the United Arab Emirates with its neighbours by publishing false reports and information on social media.”

Mansoor has faced serious violations of international standards and has been subjected to frequent harassment by the prison authorities. Both his trial and appeal hearings have demonstrated grave violations of due process and fair trial guarantees. Since his arrest, he has experienced horrendous detention conditions. He has been confined to an isolation cell, not allowed to have any contact with other prisoners or with his family, and deprived of basic necessities, including access to a bed, hygiene products, and reading materials. In other words, he has been denied his rights as a prisoner, which are protected under international human rights law and to which the UAE supposedly adheres. In 2019, he embarked on two hunger strikes, which resulted in permission to call his family twice a month and to have access to sunlight three times a week. Different United Nations human rights experts have stated that they “regard Mr. Mansoor’s arrest and detention as a direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE,” and have confirmed that “[his conditions of detention] violate basic international human rights standards.”

The United Arab Emirates must be held accountable for the persecution, torture, and ill-treatment of human rights defenders. Many Western countries, including the United States and France, continue to take advantage of their profitable arms sales and trade partnerships with the State regardless of its serious human rights violations. Instead, they should use their close ties to call out the country’s treatment of human rights defenders.

On the other hand, many international actors like the European Parliament have been vocal about this issue. Indeed, it adopted a resolution calling on the UAE to stop all forms of harassment against human rights defenders. The international community should, as a whole, urge the country to respect international law and human rights norms.