The right to freedom of expression and opinion is guaranteed by the UAE government and is in fact explicitly enshrined in its legal frameworks at both national and regional level. The Emirati Constitution guarantees such right under Article 30 which directly states about freedom of expression that “Freedom to hold opinions and express them orally, in writing or by other means of expression shall be guaranteed within the limits of the law” and Article 31 which affirms the right to communication and its secrecy.
At regional level, as a state party to Arab Charter on Human Rights since its ratification in 2008, the UAE is bound by legal obligations to guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms as stipulated under the Charter including Article 26 which states that “Everyone has a guaranteed right to freedom of belief, thought and opinion”.
Recent implemented legislations used as a pretext to suppress and violate individuals’ right to freedom of expression and opinion
Despite being guaranteed by the laws, the right to freedom of expression and opinion in the UAE is restricted and often violated in reality and indeed individuals especially political dissidents and human rights activists or defenders who merely peacefully exercised such right were subjected to reprisals by the government authorities.
One of the means or devices used by the government against those is having, in 2016, significantly amended the provisions of the Emirati Penal Code under the Federal Law no. (7) including by adding a new article to restrict the right to freedom of expression and opinion i.e. Article 182 bis which states that “a person shall be punished by imprisonment for a term not less than ten years, when he takes advantage of religion in promoting orally, in writing or in any other way ideas that may harm the unity or the social peace of the state.”
Furthermore, the UAE government have also implemented the recent legislations namely, Federal Decree-Law no. (5) of 2012 on Combating Cybercrimes, Federal Law no. (7) of 2014 on Combating Terrorism Offences as well as Federal Decree Law no. (2) of 2015 on Combating Discrimination and Hatred.
Due to its broad and vague provisions and interpretations, these laws in various occasions have been used in the name of security by the Emirati authorities not only to restrict the right to exercise freedom of expression and opinion but also to harass and persecute human rights activists and political opponents.
The right to freedom of expression and opinion under attack
It is crucial to note that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ranks 119 among the countries with the worst levels of press freedom out of 180 evaluated by the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
During the year 2016 until now, human rights situation in the UAE particularly on freedom of expression and opinion has not yet improved. On the contrary, cases of violation and abuses against human rights defenders and activists are increasingly reported.
The following are the prominent cases of human rights violations related to freedom of expression and opinion occurring and reported during 2016-present:
Mr. Ahmed Mansoor: the last HRD detained
On 20 March 2017, the State Security Apparatus arrested human rights activist Mr. Ahmed Mansoor after raiding his home in Ajman and searching at length all of his rooms and their belongings, including the children's rooms. Their computers and cell phones were also confiscated. His family had no information on his whereabouts until authorities issued an official statement on 29 March 2017, saying he was in detention in the Central Prison in Abu Dhabi.
It is understood that Mr. Mansoor’s family have been allowed only one short supervised visit with him which took place two weeks after his arrest on 3 April 2017, when authorities moved him from where he was being held, believed to be a detention facility adjacent to Al-Wathba Prison, to a prosecutor’s office in Abu Dhabi. It is reported that Mr. Mansoor is being held in solitary confinement and has not spoken to a lawyer.
It is strongly believed that this arbitrary arrest of Mr. Ahmed Mansoor is a result of his human rights activities and his use of the Internet to express his opinions and views and to expose gross human rights violations taking place in the UAE.
Mr. Ahmed Mansoor is a well-known human rights defender from the UAE. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. In 2015, Mr. Mansoor won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.
Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith: hunger strike for freedom
On 29 March 2017, Dr. Bin Ghaith was convicted to ten years of imprisonment by the Federal Appeal Court and later transferred to Al Sadr prison. After his conviction, he issued an open letter declaring his intention to go on a hunger strike on 2 April 2017 until his unconditional release and an authorization to allow him and his family to leave the country. His physical and mental integrity is of high concern given the reputation on human rights abuses of the prison and the ongoing hunger strike.
Dr. Bin Ghaith, an economic expert and human rights defender, was arrested by the Emirati authorities in August 2015 on account of his peaceful activities on Twitter including, his posts expressing criticism of the human rights violations of the UAE and Egyptian governments and spreading false news about the UAE rulers and policies and collaborating with opponents.
Since his arrest, Dr. Bin Ghaith was subjected to torture and humiliation i.e. he was detained in secret detention for months and was denied the right to contact a lawyer or his family. He was also reported to have been subjected to similar ill-treatment by the authorities when he was transferred to Al Sadr prison in May 2016, the prison in the UAE usually used to detain expats who are in the process of deportation.
After series of court trials, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for the aforementioned charges by the Federal Court of Appeal on 29 March 2017.
Mr. Osama Al-Najjar: not released
The date 17 March 2017 marked the official end of Mr. Al Najjar’s sentence to three years of imprisonment for the charge of belonging to Al-Islah, offending the State via Twitter, and spreading lies about the torture of his father, Hussain Al-Najjar, who is one of the UAE94 human rights activists and currently serving an 11-year jail term. Nonetheless, the Court not only refused to release him but extended his indefinite detention term and transferred him to a counselling centre (Center of Munasaha) after he was considered as a “threat” according to the Article 40 of the Federal Law no. (7) of 2014 on Combating Terrorism Offences.
Mr. Osama Al-Najjar was arrested on 17 March 2014 by ten state security officers during a raid on his home and later taken to a state security secret detention centre, where he was interrogated and tortured. On 21 March 2014, he was transferred to Al-Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi.
On 25 November 2014, he was tried before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court and sentenced with a final judgment to three years of imprisonment, a fine of Dh500’000 (136’000 US Dollars), and confiscation of all his electronic devices. The Court verdict is final and appeal is not allowed under the UAE legislation. In August 2016, he was transferred to Al-Razeen prison without any legitimate ground.
Mr. Tayseer Al-Najjar: a journalist behind the bars
On 15 March 2017, the Federal Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced Jordanian journalist Mr. Tayseer Al-Najjar to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500.000 AED on the charge of publishing a Facebook post in 2014 considered endangering and threatening national security and interests and compromising the public order according to the Federal Decree-Law No. (5) of 2012 on Combating Cybercrimes.
Mr. Tayseer Al-Najjar was arrested by the UAE State Security Apparatus on December 13, 2015 while he was on his way to return to Jordan. Since his arrest, Mr. Tayseer Al-Najjar was exposed to several rights’ violations i.e. he was forcibly disappeared for a three months’ period and the authorities at that time refused to disclose his whereabouts and his rights as a prisoner were also not respected for instance, he was denied a right to be visited by his wife and his lawyer.
Besides, the UAE authorities have deliberately delayed to bring Mr. Tayseer Al-Najjar before a court. He was in fact tried before the Federal Supreme Court only on 1 February 2017, two years later since his arrest. This demonstrates a clear violation of his right, a right of every accused to be tried without delay.
Mr. Mohammed Abdul Razzaq Al-Siddiq and his three children: revocation of nationality
In March 2016, Mr. Mohammed Abdul Razzaq Al-Siddiq’s two daughters and son namely, Asma (29 years), Duaa (25 years) and Omar Abdul Razzaq (23 years) Al-Siddiq were deprived of their nationality without legitimate ground. The UAE authorities also deprived them of all their official documents including their ID card, passport, driving license, health insurance and credit cards, resulting them in being stateless.
Mr. Mohammed Abdul Razzaq Al-Siddiq’s nationality was first revoked as a reprisal on his peaceful activities as a human rights defender. He is known for being convicted in the UAE94 mass trial and is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence in Al-Razeen prison.
The three Al-Siddiq siblings stripped out of their citizenship also have background of online activism for criticizing the State’s policies on social media. It is of particular note that only the three siblings engaging in online activities amongst ten others were revoked of their nationality. This obviously emphasizes that the government used deprivation of nationality as a tool to silence the voice of human rights activists and repress their right to freedom of expression and opinion.