In March, the ninth Emirates Airline Festival of Literature took place in Dubai and featured an impressive array of writers and journalists from the UK. How many, though, are aware that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government, which sponsors the festival, regularly imprisons writers and bloggers for advocating human rights and democratic reform? According to Amnesty International, the UAE arbitrarily restricts the rights to freedom of expression and association, and detains government critics, opponents and foreign nationals under criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws. Enforced disappearances, unfair trials, torture and ill-treatment of detainees are widespread.
One prominent victim of government repression is Ahmed Mansour al-Shehhi, a 47-year-old Emirati writer, poet and human rights defender charged by the Public Prosecution for Cybercrimes with publishing false information and rumours, as well as promoting sectarianism through his writings on social media. Al-Shehhi has published a poetry collection in Arabic entitled Beyond the Failure and many articles about human rights and the need for political reform in the UAE. Al-Shehhi is known for his regular appeals for the release of prisoners of conscience and respect for public liberties and human rights. He also has a blog and has written on various subjects, including his own mistreatment and other violations of freedom of expression. Al-Shehhi won the 2015 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.
On 20 March 2017, a dozen uniformed security agents arrested al-Shehhi at his home in the city of Ajman. They confiscated all electronic devices there, including phones and laptops belonging to members of his family. Al-Shehhi was taken to Abu Dhabi’s central prison, Al Wathba, before being transferred to the heavily guarded Al Sadr prison on 4 April.
According to the Emirates News Agency, al-Shehhi was detained for using social media to publish false and misleading information that could harm national unity, social harmony and the country’s reputation. The day before his arrest al-Shehhi had posted a tweet on the Gulf Centre for Human Rights’ Twitter account calling for the immediate release of Osama al-Najjar, a human rights activist who remains in prison, despite having completed his three-year prison sentence.
Human rights organisations consider al-Shehhi’s arrest and detention to be an act of reprisal for the views he expressed on social media, including Twitter, as well as for his activities as a member of such organisations as the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and his support for other international lobbying groups, including Human Rights Watch. At the time of writing, he has been denied access to a lawyer of his choice.
Al-Shehhi’s case is just one of many involving human rights activists. On 29 March, the economist, academic and human rights defender Dr Nasser bin Ghaith was sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘posting false information’ about the UAE’s leaders and their policies and ‘posting false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the State and one of its institutions’. These charges related to comments he made on Twitter stating that he had not been given a fair trial in an earlier case, which dated back to 2011. In that year, Ghaith and four Emiratis, including al-Shehhi, were charged with ‘publicly insulting’ the UAE’s president, vice-president and crown prince in online postings and a petition calling for economic, political and social reform. Ghaith and al-Shehhi were sentenced to two and three years in prison respectively. Following international appeals, the president pardoned the dissidents and they were released.
However, on 18 August 2015, Ghaith was arrested by State Security officials at his place of work and effectively disappeared. He only reappeared on 4 April last year, when he was brought before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court. Ghaith told the court that he had been held in secret detention and had endured beatings and sleep deprivation for nearly eight months. The judge dismissed his claims and refused to authorise an independent investigation into his allegations of ill-treatment.
Ghaith has also been charged with ‘committing a hostile act against a foreign state’, in relation to comments he made on Twitter criticising the government of Egypt, and with ‘offensively criticising the construction of a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi and inciting UAE citizens against their leaders and government’. This second charge relates to a tweet that, he claims, was intended to promote tolerance and was misinterpreted.
Readers might like to send appeals to the Emirati authorities urging them to immediately and unconditionally release Ahmed Mansour al-Shehhi, Osama al-Najjar and Dr Nasser bin Ghaith; demanding that they are not subjected to ill-treatment in prison and that their rights are upheld in accordance with international human rights standards; seeking assurances that all those held solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression will be released; and calling on the authorities to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.