Three years ago, the UAE government prosecuted en masse 94 government critics and activists who called for reform in the Emirates.
Since this time, there has been no Arab Spring-like uprising. No anti-government protests that have come close to shaking the ruling regime. Yet the state-sponsored repression of human rights advocates and journalists continues unabated.
Arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, unfair trials, deportations, and revocation of citizenships are among the tactics the UAE authorities regularly deploy to silence dissident voices and make sure that no such uprising takes place within its borders.
This week, 33-year-old Amina Abdouli is scheduled to appear before the Supreme Federal Court on charges related to her activities on Twitter. According to Amnesty International, she stands accused of:
…creating and running two Twitter accounts and publishing information with the aims of inciting hatred against the State and disturbing public order; mocking and damaging the reputation of State institutions; publishing false information about Saudi Arabia and making derogatory remarks about an Egyptian official with the aim of endangering the State’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt…
Building repression into the system
These practices have come in tandem with changes to the law that allow for broad, unchecked persecution of state critics in the online realm. The UAE governmentamended the country's 2006 cybercrime law in 2012 introducing harsh punishments for legitimate acts of free expression. The law prescribes imprisonment and fines for those who publish online news, cartoons and pictures that “may endanger the national security and the higher interests of the State or afflicts its public order” (article 28), and content deemed “damaging” to the “the reputation, prestige or stature of the State or any of its institutions or its president, vice-president, any of the rulers of the Emirates, their crown princes, or the deputy rulers of the Emirates, the State flag, the national peace, its logo, national anthem or any of its symbols” (article 29).
Those making calls to “overthrow, change the ruling system of the State, or seize it or to disrupt the provisions of the constitution or the laws applicable in the country or to oppose the basic principles which constitutes the foundations of the ruling system of the state” risk life imprisonment under article 30 of the law.
The use of VPNs to bypass government restrictions and engage in activities not allowed under the country's cybercrime law, is a crime punishable by imprisonment and up to $545,000.
These policies come alongside a variety of regulatory reforms affecting private online companies whose services include messaging and posting of unique content, making it easier for officials to prosecute individuals for their online activities, and to limit residents’ abilities to use these platforms in a private fashion.
On 2 July 2013, the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi convicted 69 of the defendants and sentenced them to between seven and 15 years in jail. Verdicts issued by the State Security Chamber cannot be appealed under UAE law.
Some of the most striking effects of this crackdown have played out among families. Relatives of government critics routinely suffer the consequences of their family members’ online activities.
Amina Abdouli is not the only person in her family going on trial this week. Her brother Mosaab Abdouli will also stand trial for allegedly joining the armed rebel group Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, a charge he previously denied. The father of Amina and Mosaab, Mohammed al-ABdouli, was the head of the banned Emirati Umma Party and was arrested in 2005 and remained in prison for two years without trial.
In 2013, he died fighting with the Ahrar al-Sham armed group in Syria. On 30 May 2016, their 18-year-old sister Moza ‘Abdouli, was acquitted from the charges of “insulting the UAE, its leaders, and its institutions” over tweets she posted in March 2015, when she was still 15 and mourning the death of her father.
The case of al-Abdouli family is not uncommon. Last year, three sisters were forcibly disappeared by the authorities, and spent three months in secret detention for campaigning on Twitter in support of their jailed brother, a prisoner of conscience convicted in the UAE94 trial.
Osama al-Najjar is currently serving a three-year jail term for tweeting about the ill-treatment of his jailed father, also convicted in the UAE94 mass trial. According to Amnesty International, al-Najjar was convicted of a number of charges including “instigating hatred against” the state, “designing and running a website [with] satirical and defaming ideas and information” deemed harmful to UAE institutions. His conviction, which was handed down by the State Security Chamber at the Federal Supreme Court in November 2014, cannot be appealed.
No exceptions for foreigners
Relying heavily on a foreign labor force to maintain and drive its economic growth, the UAE population is made up of 81% foreigners. Members of this large expat community, which is dominated by workers from South East-Asia but also includesEuropean, Australian, American, and Arab nationalities, often fall foul of the country's repressive policies and laws.
Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar has been detained for nine months without trial. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities questioned him about a July 2014 Facebook message that he posted before he moved to the UAE to work as a culture reporter for the local newspaper Dar. In the post, al-Najjar reportedly criticized Israeli actions in the Palestinian region of Gaza, and Egyptian authorities’ destruction of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
And it is not only activists and government critics who need to worry about what they post and say on the internet, as the mere acts of sharing a link or swearing on WhatsApp could land users into legal trouble. On 28 July, authorities in Dubaiarrested Scott Richards, a British-Australian national, for sharing a link on Facebook to a charity raising money for refugees in Afghanistan. He risks a year in jail and a fine of 100,000 Emirati dirhams (USD $18,000), under local laws that prohibit fundraising and donating to foreign charities without the authorities’ prior written approval. Last year, an Australian woman was fined and deported for posting on Facebook a photo showing a car parked across two parking spots for disabled drivers outside her flat.
These incidents prompted the UK to update its travel guidance recently, warning its nationals not to post materials critical of individuals, companies and the government, while in the UAE.
UAE leaders often boast about the high living standards their citizens and expat residents enjoy. The country ranks 30th worldwide in the 2015 prosperity index, which ranks countries in terms of prosperity based on income and well-being. The government even has a minister for happiness, and according to a 2016 poll, young people in the Arab region chose the UAE as the “best country” to live and work in for its safety, stability and the economic opportunities it offers. For the time being, however, activists and government critics do not seem to enjoy the happiness, well-being and safety the Emirates offer.