In 2016, Alkarama continued to document violations of fundamental rights and freedoms in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), including cases of arbitrary detention and torture, as well as violations of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement. Simultaneously, the UAE demonstrated an unwillingness to cooperate with the UN human rights mechanisms, either by not responding to letters of allegations or by refusing to provide any substantive information, especially in cases of disappearances, in relation to which they repeatedly failed to disclose information on the fate and whereabouts of the victims.
However, despite of its human rights record, the UAE will be a member of the Human Rights Council until at least 2018. In June 2016, to signify the country’s “commitment to the UN” with its donation of 22 million US dollars, a new “Emirati conference room” was inaugurated at the Palais de Nations in Geneva.
Human rights defenders have continued to face repression, with the authorities regularly employing intelligent spyware and revoking nationality. Indeed, spyware purchased by the government to allegedly combat crime and terrorism, are in fact used to gather intelligence on its citizens and to stifle any dissent. Pegasus, the software that was used against human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, allows its operator to record phone calls and intercept text messages, including those on encrypted applications, such as Viber and WhatsApp. It can also copy contacts and read emails, as well as track movements and turn on the phone’s camera or microphone. Invoices from the Hacking Team spyware – that was also used to survey Ahmed Mansoor – were leaked in July 2015, indicating that the UAE were its second-biggest customers in 2015, paying them more than 634,500 US dollars to use spyware on around 1,100 people.
This year, much like its neighbouring Gulf countries, the UAE increasingly relied upon the deprivation of nationality under the pretext of “national security”; an ultimate tool to suppress dissenting voices, in clear violation of article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of nationality.
Lastly, in 2016, the country’s foreign policy continued to be marked by its support for the international coalition against the Islamic State, and its military role in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen. The UAE are also taking part in an international operation – involving British, French, and US forces – in support of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar against rival militia groups in eastern Libya.
Violations of the right to freedom of expression
In 2016, Alkarama continued to document cases of individuals being prosecuted for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression and opinion, demonstrating the government’s heightened crackdown on those critical of its policies, primarily activists and reformists. This included politically motivated prosecutions and unfair trials, the use of travel bans, and even revoking several individuals’ citizenship.
The case of Jordanian journalist Taysir Hasan Mahmoud Salman, who was called to the Criminal Investigation Department of Abu Dhabi in December 2015, serves as one such example. Upon his arrival at their premises, Mr Salman was arrested by members of the State Security Forces (Amn Al Dawla) and taken to an unknown location. He was detained incommunicado for over two months. Finally, on 18 February 2016, he was allowed to contact his family to inform them that he was detained at the Al Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi. His detention is believed to have been a direct result of a Facebook post he published in 2014, before moving to the UAE, in which he criticised the country’s support for Egypt’s actions in Gaza; forming the primary focus of his interrogation. To this day, he has not been officially charged or allowed access to legal counsel, and more than a year since his arrest, no date has been set for a trial.
Another prominent case is that of Naser Bin Ghait, an academic and reformist, who was arrested by State Security Forces on 18 August 2015. After being disappeared for nearly eight months, he was presented to the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi on 4 April 2016. Dr Bin Ghaith has been accused of “cooperating with the Ummah party” and “publishing academic articles critical of governmental policies”, acts perceived by the authorities as “instigating the public opinion against the State”, “undermining national unity”, and “provoking civil and political unrest”. As the Ummah party was categorised by the UAE as a terrorist entity, Dr Bin Ghaith is being tried based on the Federal Law No. 7 of 2014 on Combating Terrorism Offences. He is also being charged under articles 26-28 of the Federal Law No. 5 of 2012 on Combating Cybercrimes, for voicing his opinion online and through social media, and could receive a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Indeed, the anti-terrorism law provides an extremely broad and vague definition of terrorism and continues to serve as the legal basis upon which peaceful political opponents are prosecuted. The laws on counterterrorism and cybercrime continue to be the preferred tools of repression against political opponents, bloggers, and anyone voicing an opinion that is not in line with that of the authorities.
Systematic use of incommunicado detention to silence dissent
The practice of prolonged incommunicado detention continues to be prevalent and is used as an oppressive strategy by the State security apparatus to spread fear and silence dissidents, reformists, and human rights activists, as well as lawyers who represent victims of these offences. Every instance of secret detention amounts to an enforced disappearance and is, by its very nature, a form of incommunicado detention, as specified in the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
The use of prolonged incommunicado detention is commonly applied by the Emirati State Security Services, which operate under the control of the Ministry of Interior and report directly to the President of the Federation. The State Security Services are not subjected to any independent judicial control and have their own secret detention facilities. Moreover, trials before the State Security Court, an exceptional justice system responsible for prosecuting the accused at first and last instance, are characterised by gross violations of fundamental human rights.
Alkarama has most commonly witnessed the use of incommunicado detention during the investigation stage. As such, the practice is used for the purposes of interrogation and the extraction of incriminating confessions under torture. Detention without access to the outside world is not only conducive to the practice of torture, but can itself amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This is illustrated by cases of both Taysir Salman and Dr Naser bin Ghaith, who were disappeared for three and eight months respectively, and both reported that they had been tortured during their interrogation for the purpose of extracting false confessions.
AMENDMENTS TO THE PENAL CODE PUT BASIC RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS AT RISK
On 18 September 2016, the Emirati President issued Decree Law No. 7 of 2016, amending the UAE Penal Code. The decree, which amends 132 existing articles and introduces 34 new articles, endangers basic rights, including the right to life and the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
One of the most concerning aspects of this new law is that it extends the application of the death penalty to a wide range of crimes. The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions advocates that, if at all, the death penalty should solely apply to cases concerning “the most serious crimes” for which it “can be shown that there was an intention to kill which resulted in the loss of life”. Yet, article 175 of the new Penal Code provides for the capital punishment of anyone who makes an attempt on the life of the UAE President, irrespective of whether the crime is in fact carried out or not.
The new law also places severe restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Among others, the establishment or joining of “organisations” aimed at “overthrowing the government” or otherwise “disrupting State Security” may be punished with the death penalty.
According to the new law, anyone who “insults the President of the UAE” or “insults, mocks, harms the reputation, prestige or statute of the State, its flag, its emblem, its symbols or any of its institutions”, may be punished with 15 to 25 or 10 to 25 years in prison, respectively. Such provisions are detrimental to the right to peaceful criticism and violate the right of individuals to voice their opinion about the government and its policies.
Finally, article 201 bis (7) of the amended Penal Code stipulates that a person found guilty of crimes that endanger “State security” should be removed from the territory of the State after their sentence has been served. In many ways, this resembles a revocation of nationality, whereby an individual considered undesirable by the State is stripped of all his/her political and civil rights.
All in all, the broad and vaguely defined provisions of the new Penal Code enable – and arguably encourage – violations of some of the most basic human rights. The amendments restricting fundamental freedoms must be revised and replaced with precise and clearly defined limitations that do not strip these freedoms of their essence.