Emirati economist Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith has over 36,000 Twitter followers, none of whom have seen a post from him since 17 August 2015 – the last day he was a free man. On 18 August, security forces in civilian clothing arrested the prominent academic. Emirati security forces held Dr. Bin Ghaith incommunicado for eight months, and failed to provide any information to his family in regards to his arrest or any charges he faced. Throughout this time, the Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not officially comment on his arrest.
On 4 April 2016, Dr. Bin Ghaith abruptly reappeared before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi without a lawyer. Authorities have levied five separate charges against him, which largely stem from comments he made on social media about human rights abuses by the Emirati and Egyptian Governments.
The Emirati government has repeatedly targeted Dr. Bin Ghaith and fellow activists for voicing dissent. In 2011, Dr. Bin Ghaith was one of five men found guilty of publicly insulting an Emirati official for comments made online about the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Following international criticism, Emirati authorities pardoned the group, referred to as the ‘UAE 5.’ Upon his release, Dr. Bin Ghaith was vocal about his unjust prosecution and claimed that he had been severely tortured while in detention. One of the charges he is currently facing is related to these statements, which the government asserts were intended to damage the UAE.
Currently, Dr. Bin Ghaith is facing five charges. In addition to his statements regarding the 2011 arrest, authorities have accused him of damaging national interests through twitter comments where he criticized a building project. Such forms of free expression are criminalized under Article 28 of the country’s 2012 Cybercrime law, which dictates up to 15 years in prison for online posts that endanger the higher interests of the state. The determinant of such interests remains undefined by the law. Authorities have accused Dr. Bin Ghaith of committing a ‘hostile act’ against a foreign country regarding his tweets published on August 13 and 14, which is punishable with 10 years in prison under Article 166 of the UAE Penal Code. The ‘hostile’ tweets were in remembrance of the demonstrators killed by Egyptian security forces at Raba’a square two years earlier. The additional charges against Dr. Bin Ghaith accuse him of allegedly associating with theUmmah and Al-Islah organizations, which the authorities have labelled “terrorist organizations.” Article 21 of the 2014 Counterterrorism law provides for the death penalty to anyone who manages or organizes a “terrorist organization.” The UAE’s classification of terrorist organizations has come under international scrutiny, as peaceful civil society organizations have been placed on the list.
Dr. Bin Ghaith has so far remained in detention for 14 months and has experienced severe human rights abuses. Emirati authorities have directly violated the standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners by not allowing him to contact his family or access legal counsel. His claims that he was physically beaten and deprived of sleep for long periods of time represent a clear violation of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (CAT), a treaty to which the UAE acceded in 2012. Authorities have held Dr. Bin Ghaith in solitary confinement since 18 May 2016, considered to be a form oftorture by UN human rights experts. Furthermore, the charges for which Dr. Bin Ghaith is being prosecuted violate international rights to free expression and association outlined in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As an academic, Dr. Bin Ghaith is the victim of a political system that criminalizes criticism and stifles peaceful objection of any kind. The UAE must release him immediately and amend its laws to protect and facilitate free expression.