Arrested in the dead of night from his home in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it was nine days until Ahmed Mansoor’s family had any news of his whereabouts. All the information they had was a short statement from the UAE’s official news agency. It said that he had been arrested for using social media to, “publish false and misleading information that harms national unity and social harmony and damages the country’s reputation.”
The arrest provoked an immediate outcry from human rights groups. Ahmed Mansoor is an internationally-recognized human rights defender: he was awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Award in 2015. He has long faced government harassment for his work, having been imprisoned, banned from travel and attacked on the street with impunity.
Despite calls for his release, which were renewed last week by a joint statement from 20 leading organizations, Mansoor is still in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer. His family has been able to visit him just once, according to organizations’ joint statement.
Western governments, who often claim to advance a liberal and democratic agenda in the Middle East, have been notably quiet regarding the case of Mansoor, however. “No governments have publicly criticized Mansoor’s arrest,” said Nicholas McGeehan, Human Rights Watch’s UAE Researcher, “and to our knowledge none have raised the issue in private with the UAE, although we have pressed them to do so.”
When asked for their view on the arrest of Mansoor, the US State Department simply responded that they were “aware” of the arrest. They referred questions about human rights in the UAE to the department’s annual report. That only makes more unclear the reasons for their failure to express any concern regarding the case, however, given that it lists arbitrary detentions, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and violations of fair trial standards amongst other issues in the country.
A spokesperson for Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth office said that they were following Mansoor’s case closely, and that they regularly raise with the Emiratis, “the importance of ensuring that the human rights of all Emirati citizens are fully respected, including the rights of freedom of expression and association.” The spokesperson did not specify whether they had done so in the case of Mansoor.
“As has historically been the case, the Western governments are reluctant to make any comments about the UAE's domestic affairs, as the UAE has historically served as an important regional 'proxy' for Western interests in the region,” said Christopher Davidson, an Associate Professor in Middle East Politics at Durham University. He explained that military forces from the UAE were deployed in Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere in support of western interests.
The UAE has been fighting on the ground in Yemen in support of the Saudi-led coalition’s assault on Houthi rebels, as well as taking part in US missions against al-Qaeda. Mansoor had used his Twitter to criticize human rights violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition in the country.
Davidson also highlighted economic ties as a key reason for western governments’ reluctance to criticize UAE government policies. “The country is a vital trade partner, with a significant chunk of UAE sovereign wealth being ploughed back into the Western economies, with decades of lucrative arms purchases, and with several general oil concessions having always been in the hands of Western oil majors.”
“It’s a depressing situation when no states feel they can risk expressing support for an award-winning human rights activist because of the potential backlash from the UAE, which has become very adept at fully exercising its economic and strategic leverage,” said McGeehan, the Human Rights Watch researcher.
The UAE is ruled by a council of the seven rulers from the Emirates that make up the country. Although there is also an elected body, it is only elected by only one-fifth of citizens and its powers are limited to consulting, rather than legislating. There are no political parties.
Davidson said that the country had long used the distribution of oil wealth in exchange for the acquiescence of its citizens, but that since 2011 the government had taken a more actively repressive tack. “Under a new generation of leaders and with growing concerns over the ambitions of Islamist movements the UAE has opted for greater repression of dissidents so as to 'nip in the bud' any form of organized, local opposition movement.”
The last time that Mansoor was arrested and jailed, in 2011, he only avoided a ten-year sentence because he was pardoned by the UAE’s President, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Such a pardon may be Mansoor’s only hope for release this time as well, given the absence of fair trials in the country. The chances of being pardoned are unclear, however, and it appears less likely in the absence of pressure from other governments.
“The UAE has a zero tolerance approach to dissent or criticism,” McGeehan said, “and the international community, which used to believe in the promotion of more free, open and just societies, appears to be entirely comfortable with that.”