March 2017 was a dismal month for human rights in the United Arab Emirates. Two months later the situation has not improved. I want to tell in this post the stories of three human rights defenders from the United Arab Emirates: Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith and Osama al-Najjar and what happened to them in the previous months.
1. Arrested: Ahmed Mansoor
a) Ahmed Mansoor is a prominent blogger and human rights activist. He is an engineer and a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Advisory Committee as well as the Advisory Board of the organisation Gulf Centre for Human Rights.
b) Ahmed Mansoor had been targeted by the UAE authorities for several years. On 8 April 2011 he was arrested and questioned. A months before his arrest, on 9 March 2011, he was one of 133 activists who had signed a petition to demand the introduction of universal direct elections for the Federal National Council, a quasi-parliamentary body, and give them full legislative power. Ahmed Mansoor had strongly supported this petition and had given interviews to the media in favour of this initiative. Human rights organisations assumed at the time that his activism for political reform was the reason of his arrest.
He was charged under article 176 of the UAE Penal Code which makes it an offence to “publicly insult the State President, its flag or national emblem”. Art. 8 of the UAE Penal Code widens its application to other top officials. Another charge against him was “conspiracy against the safety and security of the state” by his participation in the online political discussion forum Hewar which had been banned in UAE in early 2010. Ahmed Mansoor was tried together with four other defendants (including Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith) who were charged with similar offences. The trial opened at the Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court on 14 June 2011 and is widely referred to as UAE5 trial. Amnesty International and other human rights organisations held that the trial was unfair and did violate basic rights of the defendants. The first four hearings in the trial were held behind closed doors, the defendants were denied any meaningful opportunity to see the charges and evidence against them and to prepare a defence. The defendants also did not have a right to appeal the judgement, because the offences were tried subject to State Security criminal proceedings in which the Federal Supreme Court was the first and last instance. On 27 November 2011 Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to three years in prison. The following day the President of the UAE pardoned Ahmed Mansoor and the four other defendants. However the charges were not dropped and Ahmed Mansoor was denied a passport and banned from travelling.
c) Since 2011 Ahmed Mansoor had been the target of numerous attacks via social media. He was targeted by spyware which enabled the government to track his movements and read his e-mails. He was generally under close physical and electronic surveillance. The authorities did not issue him with a “certificate of good conduct” which is necessary to obtain employment in the UAE. This meant that he could not work anymore as an engineer. Ahmed Mansoor started studying law in 2012. However, he was physically assaulted twice in university by government supporters and stopped his studies after the second assault.
d) On 6 October 2015 the Martin Ennals Foundation announced Ahmed Mansoor as the 2015 Laureate Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. The award is given to human rights defenders who have shown strong commitment and face great personal risk. The aim of the award is to provide protection through international recognition. Ahmed Mansoor was not able to attend the ceremony in Geneva to accept the award in person, because of the travel ban against him.
e) The constant harrassment of Ahmed Mansoor was just a prelude to what happened in March 2017. Around midnight of 20 March 2017 security forces entered Ahmed Mansoor’s home where he lives with his wife and their four small boys. They searched the place for three hours, confiscated all phones and electronic devices and took him around 3:15 am to an undisclosed location. According to an official news agency, he was arrested on orders of the Public Prosecution for Cybercrimes and accused of using social media to publish false and misleading information that harm the national unity and damage the reputation of the country. He was also accused of “promoting sectarian and hate-incited agenda”. Ahmed Mansoor had used his Twitter account to speak out for Osama al-Najjar and Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith and had criticised human rights violations in the region, in particular in Egypt and through the war in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition.
His family did not hear from him for the next two weeks. On 3 April he was allowed a short supervised family visit. He was being held in solitary confinement and had no access to a lawyer.
On 28 March 2017 a group of United Nations human rights experts called for his release and described the arrest as “a direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE“. Also the Subcommittee on Human Rights at the European Parliament urged the UAE government to release Ahmed Mansoor. A coalition of 20 human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Scholars at Risk, Gulf Centre for Human Rights and many others joined the call for his immediate and unconditional release. He is still in prison.
Please raise your voice for Ahmed Mansoor. He always stands up for others and we should now campaign for him in this time where he needs our support. Amnesty International launched two different online petitions for his release, the petition “Free activist detained for blogging in the UAE” and the petition “Free Ahmed Mansoor“. Sign the petitions, share them via e-mail and social media and raise awareness about his situation. You can also write a letter, fax or e-mail to the UAE authorities. Amnesty put together all relevant information.
2. Sentenced: Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith
a) Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith is a well known economist, academic and human rights defenders. He is lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Sorbonne University, Paris. Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith had also been a target of harassment because of his advocacy for human rights and political reforms for a long time.
b) On 10 April 2011 he was arrested in Dubai. He had written online articles asking for political reform. As Ahmed Mansoor he had also signed the petition which asked for meaningful democratic reform of the Federal National Council. The authorities saw in his articles a threat for national security and an insult against government leaders and charged him under article 176 and article 8 of the UAE Penal Code, the same offence Ahmed Mansoor was charged with. Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was also tried in the UAE5 trial. I have already mentioned the human rights violations in this trial in the context of Ahmed Mansoor. On 27 November 2011 the Federal Supreme Court of Abu Dhabi sentenced Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith to two years imprisonment for insulting the UAE government. As Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was pardoned on the following day, but the charges against him have not been dropped and the harassment and intimidations continued.
c) On 18 August 2015 Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was arrested at 2 pm at his work place by State Security officers. He was brought to his home and the security officers searched his house between 4 pm and 8:30 pm and confiscated several items. Neither he nor his family were informed about the reasons for his arrest. For the next eight months Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was disappeared. His family did not know about his whereabouts and he did not have any contact with his lawyer. On 4 April 2016 he appeared the first time in public after his arrest in front of the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. The court session was also his first opportunity to speak briefly with his lawyer. Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith claimed that he had been held in solitary confinement and had been tortured by beating him and depriving him of sleep. The court did not order an independent investigation into the allegations of torture and ill-treatment and the judge switched off the microphone so that he could not continue to state his allegations.
Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith faced a number of charges, including “committing a hostile act against a foreign state”, because he had criticised on Twitter the Government of Egypt in the context of the massacre which happened at the camp of protesters against General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at Rabaa al-Adwiya Mosque (Cairo) in August 2013. Further charges were “posting false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the State and one of its institutions” based on his comments that the UAE5 trial had not been fair. There were also charges on the basis of statements he had made and contacts he had had – including contacts to persons who were tried in the so-called UA94 trial in 2013 and with Amnesty International’s General Secretary in December 2011.
Further hearings in the trial against Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith took place on the 2 May, 23 May, 20 June and 26 September 2016. In the hearing on 5 December 2016 he was informed that the case had been transferred to the recently established Federal Appeal Court in Abu Dhabi. After two hearing at that court on 18 January and 22 February 2017, the court delivered a verdict on 29 March 2017. Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He can appeal the sentence within 30 days before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court.
On 30 March 2017 he was transferred to a Al-Razeen Prison – a maximum security prison in the middle of the Abu Dhabi desert. The prison is often used to hold activists, government critics, and human rights defenders. Before his transfer he wrote a letter and announced that he would start on 2 April an open ended hunger strike until his release. He said in his letter:
“Unfortunately, I was forced to take such decisions as I have no choice but to go on hunger strike to restore my stolen freedom .”
Amnesty International has issued an urgent action and asks for the release of Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith. There is also a call for his immediate and unconditional release by 10 human rights organisations including Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Scholars at Risk. Please take action for him, tweet about him and write letters and ask the UAE authorities to release him.
3. Not released: Osama al-Najjar
a) Osama al-Najjar is a 28 years online activist. He is the son of Hussain Ali al-Najjar al-Hammadi, a science teacher.
b) His father was arrested on 16 July 2012 and was one of the defendants in the infamous mass trial UAE94 against 94 individuals, including government critics and advocates of reform. The human rights lawyer Dr. Mohammed al-Roken about whom I wrote a blog post in December last year was another defendant in the UAE94 trial. You can read more about the trial and the human rights violations during it, in my post about Dr. Al-Roken. Hussain al-Najjar was sentenced to 10 years in prison (followed by a three years probation period) on the charges of “plotting to overthrow the government”. In a separate trial in January 2014 he was sentenced to 14 further months in prison which he will serve after the 10 years sentence is completed.
c) Osama al-Najjar was arrested on 17 March 2014. He had been campaigning on social media for his father. Three weeks before his arrest, he had tweeted to the Ministry of Interior and expressed concern about his father’s torture and ill-treatment during the detention, the conditions in Al-Razaan prison and the unfair UAE94 trial.
After his arrest Osama was brought in a secret detention place. For four days he was continuously questioned from morning to evening. During the questioning, he was tortured and ill-treated. Osama was beaten and threatened with electric shocks if he would not cooperate. There were also threats that his mother and his younger siblings would be detained. He had no contact with his lawyer or with his family. After four days he was transferred to Al-Wathba Prison in Abu Dhabi were his family could visit him. However, he still did not get an opportunity to speak with his lawyer.
The trial against Osama al-Najjar began on 23 September 2014. In this hearing he also had the first time the chance to speak with his lawyer. A second hearing took place on 14 October 2014. On 25 November 2014 the State Security Court at the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 Emirate Dirhams (about GBP 106,000) on the charges of “instigating hatred against the state”, “designing and running a website on social networks with the aim of publishing inaccurate, satirical and defamatory ideas and information that are harmful to the structure for State institutions”, “belonging to the al-Islah organisation” and “contacting foreign organisation and presenting inaccurate information”. Osama’s electronic devices were confiscated and his Twitter account and website were closed. No appeal was possible against this judgement.
d) After spending three years in prison, Osama al-Najjar was due for release two months ago, on 17 March 2017. The authorities did not release him. There is no indication for how long his detention will be extended. Apparently the prosecutor said that his release poses a threat to society and had applied for the continuous detention on the basis of anti-terror laws, even so he was not found guilty of a “terrorist offence”. He is kept incommunicado in a “counselling centre”. International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE) explains in a recent article how the UAE authorities generally misuse the “counselling centre” to extend the imprisonment on human rights defenders. Osama al-Najjar is not the only one whose detention is extended in this arbitrary way. Amnesty International and other human rights organisations ask for his immediate release and state there is no basis for his ongoing arbitrary detention.
Please take action for Osama al-Najjar and join the urgent action of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. Join the campaign on Twitter and write letters to the UAE authorities to ask for his release.