Press freedom must not be used as a bargaining chip

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The call by four Arab states — UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — for Qatar to close news network Al Jazeera is clearly motivated by a desire to control the media in the region and silence reporting of stories that these governments would rather not see exposed.

Al Jazeera has brought the world news from the Arab Spring and many of the recent important moments from the region. Including the closure of Al Jazeera in a list of demands that Qatar “should” comply with to end a diplomatic crisis is about reducing media freedom in a region where it is already threatened.

“From its treatment of blogger Raif Badawi to its tightly controlled media environment, the Saudi authorities must not be able to dictate access to information for the public in other countries. Al Jazeera and press freedom must not be used as a bargaining chip,” Rachael Jolley, editor of Index on Censorship said.

None of the nations involved have a free independent media. Bahrain regularly targets criticsjournalists and the one remaining opposition newspaper in the country, Al Wasat. Saudi Arabia sentenced blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes for his “criminal” writings. Egypt has regularly tried journalists on accusations of terrorism. The UAE, too, curtails discussion of its domestic policies. UAE Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 for Printed Matter and Publications regulates all aspects of the media and is considered one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world, according to Freedom House. Reporters Without Borders ranks them all below 118, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain all below 160 out of the 180 nations it covers.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1498231474147-ef0d779a-68d3-0″ taxonomies=”9044″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

UAE: Free human rights defender Dr Nasser Bin Ghaith

We, the undersigned NGOs, call on the authorities to immediately release human rights defender and professor of economics Dr Nasser Bin Ghaith, who remains in detention in an unknown location in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for his social media posts and human rights activities. He has been denied proper access to his lawyer or family since his arrest in August 2015, and reportedly subject to torture in custody. The continued detention and charges violate his human rights, including his right to free expression.

On 18 August 2015, security officers in civilian clothes arrested Dr Bin Ghaith in Abu Dhabi and searched his home and confiscated personal items including electronic memory sticks. He was held incommunicado until finally being brought to the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi on 4 April 2016, when he told the court he had been tortured and beaten in detention and deprived of sleep for up to a week.

On 2 May 2016, a second hearing took place to examine charges against Dr Bin Ghaith relating to his online postings. He stated that he is still being held in secret detention, a fact he had previously brought to the judge’s attention during his hearing on 4 April. The judge refused to listen to his complaints for a second time. Neither his family nor his lawyer knows where he is being detained, and his lawyer’s request to visit him has been denied repeatedly.

Dr Bin Ghaith is one of a group of men known as the “UAE5” who were imprisoned in 2011 and tried for “publicly insulting” UAE officials. That trial also breached international human rights law and was widely criticised by human rights groups, including signatories of this letter.

Charges in the current case against Dr Bin Ghaith include allegedly “committing a hostile act against a foreign state” in reference to statements he made on Twitter about the authorities and judicial system in Egypt. He was also charged with “posting false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the state and one of its institutions” relating to other statements he made on Twitter claiming that he had not been granted a fair trial as part of the “UAE5” case.

A further charge brought against Dr Bin Ghaith of allegedly “posting false information about UAE leaders and their policies, offensively criticizing the construction of a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, and instigating the people of the UAE against their leaders and government” was related to a statement he made on Twitter intending to promote tolerance.

Dr Bin Ghaith was also accused of allegedly “communicating and cooperating with members of the banned Al Islah organization” referring to visits and meetings with members of the “UAE94”, a group of government critics and advocates of reform tried jointly in 2013 and sentenced to long prison terms. He was also accused of allegedly “communicating and cooperating with” the banned Emirates Ummah Party, based on a presentation he was invited to make on the Islamic Economy by a member of the Ummah party, in his capacity as a professor of economics.

At the latest hearing on 2 May, the court ordered the case to be adjourned until 23 May when the defence’s arguments will be heard.

We, the undersigned organisations, view Dr Bin Ghaith’s arrest, detention in an unknown location and without access to his family or a lawyer, and the baseless charges brought against him as a direct result of his human rights activities and non-violent expression. His conduct is protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is considered to be reflective of binding customary international law. These charges, taken in the context of other charges against non-violent political groups and human rights defenders, appears to be an attempt by authorities to stifle any criticism, dissent or activities promoting human rights in the UAE.

We call on the UAE authorities to:
Immediately and unconditionally release Dr Bin Ghaith and drop all charges against him;
Pending the above, immediately disclose his current location and ensure proper access to his family, counsel and any medical treatment he may require;
Ensure that if his case proceeds, that it does so in a manner consistent with the UAE’s obligations under international law, in particular internationally recognised standards of due process and fair trial;
Investigate reports of torture and ill-treatment in detention;
and provide justice for those responsible and effective redress to Dr Bin Ghaith;
Sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and bring all national laws into compliance with international freedom of expression standards.


Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)
FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Front Line Defenders
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Index on Censorship
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
Scholars at Risk Network
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

UAE: Human rights organisations renew call for release of peaceful activists

On the third anniversary of the start of the mass trial of 94 individuals, including government critics and advocates of reform, 10 human rights organisations appeal to the government of the United Arab Emirates to release immediately and unconditionally all those imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly as a result of this unfair trial.

The human rights organisations deplore the UAE government’s disregard for its international human rights obligations and its failure to act on recommendations from United Nations human rights experts that it release activists sentenced at the unfair trial.

Dozens of the activists, including prominent human rights defenders, judges, academics, and student leaders, had peacefully called for greater rights and freedoms, including the right to vote in parliamentary elections, before their arrests. They include prominent human rights lawyers Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken and Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansoori, Judge Mohammed Saeed Al-Abdouli, student leader Abdulla Al-Hajri, student and blogger Khalifa Al-Nuaimi, blogger and former teacher Saleh Mohammed Al-Dhufairi, and senior member of the Ras Al-Khaimah ruling family Dr. Sultan Kayed Mohammed Al-Qassimi.

The organisations urge the UAE government to end its continuing use of harassment, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment, and unfair trials against activists, human rights defenders and those critical of the authorities, and its use of national security as a pretext to crackdown on peaceful activism and to stifle calls for reform.

The 10 human rights organisations urge the UAE government, which is serving its second term as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to demonstrate clearly that it engages with UN human rights bodies by implementing recommendations by UN human rights experts to protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.

Speaking to the UN’S Human Rights Council (HRC) on 1 March 2016, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash asserted that “we are determined to continue our efforts to strengthen the protection of human rights at home and to work constructively within the [Human Rights] council to address human rights issues around the world.”

As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the UAE government must observe its pledge to the Council to uphold international human rights standards and must spare absolutely no effort in implementing human rights recommendations effectively; to do otherwise puts into question the UAE government’s commitment towards the promotion and protection of human rights at home.

The 10 human rights organisations further call on the UAE to mount an independent investigation into credible allegations of torture at the hands of the country’s State Security apparatus, including by immediately accepting the request by Juan Méndez, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, to visit the UAE in the first half of 2016.

In her May 2015 report to the UN Human Rights Council, Gabriela Knaul, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, recommended that an independent body composed of professionals with international expertise and experience, including in medical forensics, psychology and post-traumatic disorders, should be established to investigate all claims of torture and ill-treatment alleged to have taken place during arrest and/or detention; such a body should have access to all places of detention and be able to interview detainees in private, and its composition should be agreed upon with defendants’ lawyers and families.

On 4 March 2013, the government commenced the mass, unfair trial of 94 defendants before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. Those on trial included eight who were charged and tried in absentia. The government accused them, drawing on vaguely worded articles of the Penal Code, of “establishing an organisation that aimed to overthrow the government,” a charge which they all denied. On 2 July 2013, the court convicted 69 of the defendants, including the eight tried in absentia, sentencing them to prison terms of between seven and 15 years. It acquitted 25 defendants, including 13 women.

On 18 December 2015, the government of Indonesia forcibly returned to the UAE Abdulrahman Bin Sobeih, one of the defendants tried in absentia. He had intended to seek asylum but is now a victim of enforced disappearance in the UAE and at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

The UAE 94 trial failed to meet international fair trial standards and was widely condemned by human rights organisations and UN human rights bodies. The court accepted as evidence “confessions” made by defendants, even though the defendants repudiated them in court and alleged that State Security interrogators had extracted them through torture or other duress when defendants were in pre-trial incommunicado detention, without any access to the outside world, including to lawyers. The court failed to order an independent and impartial investigation of defendants’ claims that they had been tortured or otherwise ill-treated in secret detention. The defendants were also denied a right of appeal to a higher tribunal, in contravention of international human rights law. Although the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court serves as a court of first instance, its judgements are final and not subject to appeal.

During the trial, the authorities prevented independent reporting of the proceedings, barring international media and independent trial observers from attending. The authorities also barred some of the defendants’ relatives from the courtroom; others were harassed, detained or imprisoned after they criticised on Twitter the proceedings and publicised torture allegations made by the defendants.

Blogger and Twitter activist Obaid Yousef Al-Zaabi, brother of Dr. Ahmed Al-Zaabi, who is one of the UAE 94 prisoners, has been detained since his arrest in December 2013. He was prosecuted by the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court on several charges based on his Twitter posts about the UAE 94 trial, including spreading “slander concerning the rulers of the UAE using phrases that lower their status, and accusing them of oppression” and “disseminating ideas and news meant to mock and damage the reputation of a governmental institution.” Despite his acquittal in June 2014, the authorities continue to arbitrarily detain him, even though there is no legal basis for depriving him of his liberty.

On-line activist Osama Al-Najjar was arrested on 17 March 2014 and prosecuted on charges stemming from messages he posted on Twitter defending his father, Hussain Ali Al-Najjar Al-Hammadi, who is also one of the UAE 94 prisoners. In November 2014, he was sentenced by the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court to three years’ imprisonment on charges including “offending the State” and allegedly “instigating hatred against the State.” He was also convicted of “contacting foreign organisations and presenting inaccurate information,” a charge which followed his meeting with the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers during her official visit to the UAE in February 2014. Like all defendants convicted by this court, he was denied the right to appeal the verdict.

In his March 2015 report, Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, expressed serious concern about the arbitrary arrest and detention of Osama Al-Najjar. He expressed concern that his arrest and detention may have been related to his legitimate activities in advocating for justice and human rights in the UAE and the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as his cooperation with the UN and its human rights mechanisms. The Special Rapporteur called on the government to ensure that human rights defenders can carry out their legitimate activities in a safe and an enabling environment, including through open and unhindered access to international human rights bodies such as the UN, its mechanisms and representatives in the field of human rights, without fear of harassment, stigmatisation or criminalisation of any kind.

The 10 human rights organisations also express concern at the introduction of retrogressive legislation and amendment of already repressive laws, thereby further suppressing human rights. In July 2015, the authorities enacted a new law on combating discrimination and hatred with broadly-worded provisions, which further erode rights to freedom of expression and association. The law defines hate speech as “any speech or conduct which may incite sedition, prejudicial action or discrimination among individuals or groups… through words, writings, drawings, signals, filming, singing, acting or gesturing” and provides punishments of a minimum of five years’ imprisonment, as well as heavy fines. It also empowers courts to disband associations deemed to “provoke” such speech, and imprison their founders for a minimum of 10 years, even if the association or its founder have not engaged in such speech. The highly repressive 2012 cybercrime law, used already to imprison dozens of activists and others expressing peaceful criticism of the government, was amended in February 2016 to provide even harsher punishments, including by raising fines from a minimum of 100,000 Dirhams ($27,226) to 2 million Dirhams ($544,521).

Increasingly, the UAE authorities are using these laws and others simply as a means to silence peaceful dissent and other expression on public issues, and to sentence human rights defenders or peaceful critics of the government to lengthy prison terms.

The 10 human rights organisations urgently call on the UAE government to:

  • Release immediately and unconditionally all those individuals detained or imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Prohibit the practice of secret detention and institute safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment, ensuring that all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment are promptly, independently and thoroughly investigated
  • Ensure that all persons deprived of their liberty receive a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial court in accordance with international human rights standards, including by having the right to appeal the judgement before a higher court or tribunal
  • Amend any legislation which unduly restricts the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and bring all of its laws into full conformity with international human rights standards
  • Engage with the UN’s human rights bodies and implement their recommendations
  • Accept the request by the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to visit the UAE in the first half of 2016
  • Allow entry into the UAE of independent human rights organisations, including the co-signatories to this open letter, and commit to implementing their recommendations.

Amnesty International
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)
English PEN
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Index on Censorship
International Commission of Jurists
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC)
PEN International

UAE: Repression, torture and Twitter

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

On 3 March 2011 a group of Emirati intellectuals sent a petition to the country’s rulers that politely requested democratic reform and political participation. Authorities have responded by spending the past three years jailing and torturing those who supported the petition. Now citizens are using social media platforms to criticise security services for growing levels of repression with authorities responding in kind by arresting and torturing them.

Since punitive legislation governing use of the internet was passed in November 2012 at least six people have been sent to prison for comments made on Twitter. The latest to be convicted are Khalifa Rabeiah and Othman al-Shehhi who were both sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay fines of £81,875 on 10 March for criticising security services on Twitter.

The story for these two men has become a predictable one for those who dare to criticise authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They were arrested on 24 July and spent at least six months detained at an unknown location where they say officers tortured them and denied them access to a lawyer. Their families desperately sought information about the reason for their detention but were told by the attorney general’s office that no warrant had been issued for their arrest, so they could not help.

The only available information about their arrest came from the government-linked television channel, which broadcast a report analysing Rabeiah’s Twitter account. They accused him of sedition based on his use of hashtags that demonstrated support for jailed political prisoners. There is no information detailing the offending comments made by al-Shehhi, although he used the same hashtags as Rabeiah on his account.

Both men are members of al-Islah, an organisation linked with calls for political reform, and used Twitter to show solidarity with jailed members of their colleagues. The hashtag they used most, “Free Emirates”, has been active for the past three years since the authorities began to arrest political activists with a particular focus on members of al-Islah.

As authorities continue to arrest people for comments made on social media this crackdown increasingly resembles a rather frightening incarnation of Whac-A-Mole. Immediately after news was released of these latest convictions hashtags sprang up in support of both men, with Twitter users criticising security services and calling for political prisoners to be released.

It is clear that repression is fuelling dissent and with repression on the rise criticism will only increase in its intensity. These men may be deprived of their means to criticise but their jailing has sparked a wave of renewed anger at security services. Each arrest, every allegation of torture and the conclusion of more political show trials simply serves to make the problem more complicated and unsolvable for authorities.

Even the international community has started to take notice of what is happening in the UAE. Following a country visit in January a United Nations (UN) expert published a report calling for an investigation into torture and described the country’s judiciary as being under the control of the executive. The security services might not be able to arrest the UN representative but it is unlikely she will be allowed to visit again, as is the case for several Human Rights Watch employees who were banned from the country earlier in the year.

Khalifa Rabeiah and Othman al-Shehhi spoke out on Twitter because political activists were being tortured and subjected to unfair trials. In so doing they suffered the same fate, becoming two more names on a lengthening list of political prisoners. It is unclear how this crackdown will conclude but it is increasingly apparent that the threat of imprisonment has failed to prevent people from criticising repression and with each new arrest authorities create many more political opponents.

This article was posted on March 13 2014 at