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ECHR | Emirates Center for Human Rights

ECHR | Emirates Center for Human Rights

ICJHR Annual Report: UAE Events of 2016

ICJHR Annual Report: UAE Events of 2016

In 2016, the human rights situation in the United Arab Emirates has not improved. Indeed, the ICJHR reported several cases where the UAE authorities did not comply with international standards. During 2016, the ICJHR denounced the Emirati authorities’ practices of enforced disappearances as well as incommunicado and arbitrary detention. Those practices put the detainees at further risk of torture and ill-treatment, as reflected in the cases we reported.

Moreover, in September 2016, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders expressed his concern with regards to the human rights violations committed against human rights defenders in the country. The amendment of the Penal code that was introduced in December illustrates the repressive approach endorsed by the UAE government in 2016. The new modifications introduced severe sanctions and regulate more strongly fundamental rights.

Furthermore, the right to freedom of opinion and expression online as well as offline has been severely repressed by the Emirati policies in 2016 and people have been persecuted under the cover of national security. In addition, the right to freedom of assembly and association has been further criminalized by the government throughout the year.

While the authorities continued to deny international monitoring mechanisms the right to visit the detention centers, the prison conditions did not meet minimum standards and families keep being persecuted when visiting their detained relatives.

In addition, the compliance of the authorities with fair trial guarantees has remained a challenge in numerous cases despite a first step taken by the UAE to introduce the Supreme Court of Appeal, that can be appealed, as a first step in cases that were before sent before Federal Supreme Court, which judgments are definitive. However, the measure remains unclear and has no retroactive application.

Migrant workers, stateless persons and women remain very vulnerable groups in the UAE. The country did not fulfill the expectations of the international community with regard to the protection of migrants’ rights and the reform of the Kafala system that remains in place. The issue of statelessness in the UAE also remains of high concern as the number of “bidoon” in 2016 exceeded one hundred thousand. In addition, the state has pursued its practice of citizenship revocation as a mean of repression against activists and their families, which we highly condemn.





Throughout 2016, the UAE authorities, through their abusive practices and by criminalizing activists for their peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association, failed to comply with international standards.

In fact, number of Emirati and non-Emirati citizen were harassed, arrested an even convicted unlawfully in the UAE. As a consequence, the ICJHR reported throughout the year with high concern several cases of serious human rights violations in the United Arab Emirates, which included the practice of torture, enforced disappearance, incommunicado and arbitrary detention as well as unfair trials on activists, reformists, lawyers, bloggers, and journalists.

In early 2016, the Federal Supreme Court convicted three bloggers, for being active online. On June 13, 2016, Mr. Ahmed Mohamed Al-Mulla, Mr. Badr al-Bahri, Mr. Abdullah Al Helou and Mr. Fisal Alshehhi were all sentenced to three years of prison after being forcibly disappeared and held in arbitrary detention for over two years for creating an organisation. In October, the enforced disappearances and subsequent conviction of the siblings Amina and Mosaab Alabdouli was followed, a month later, by the unfair trial of Mr. Abdulrahman Binsobeih and his sentence to ten year of prison. In addition, we witnessed in 2016 an alarming increase in the persecutions of human rights defender’s families in the UAE. The ICJHR condemned the measures taken by the UAE authorities to pressure the families.

These significant cases, while illustrating the severe policy that the UAE authorities have adopted to restrict fundamental freedoms and the abuses they impose to their citizens, represents only a small fraction of the numerous activists harassed by the Emirati authorities in 2016. In fact, the human rights situation in the UAE has struggled to improve since 2015.


1.1.2. Civil society and human rights defenders in the UAE

In 2016, the ICJHR observed that, with the strengthening of the State’s surveillance and the introduction of further repressive measures, the space for civil society participation in the UAE had shrunk considerably. As shown in our statements published throughout the year highlighting the severe repression against bloggers, activists, and human rights defenders, we have noted that critics of the government, in addition to those active on social media and online, whether expressing personal opinions or openly criticizing state policies, were the most persecuted by the UAE authorities.

In July, we commemorated the 3rd anniversary of the well-known case of the UAE94, where 94 activists were persecuted and over 60 were convicted in a mass trial for criticizing the government policies, a case that testifies of the crackdown in the name of national security and the lack of place given to the civil society.

In April, Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, an academic, prominent economist and activist who publicly advocated for political reforms and human rights in the UAE, was brought before the Federal Supreme Court after being forcibly disappeared in 2015 and being detained for months in an unknown location. In May, after having reported the violations he had undergone, the case

of Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith reached the United Nations Special Procedures who inquired to the Emirati authorities about his situation. At the end of 2016, his case was transferred to the Appeal Court following the amendment of the Federal Law No. 11 of 2016. He remains, to date, held in jail, while not convicted yet, and in weak health condition due to the abusive treatments he suffered in detention.


In August, Mr. Ahmed Mansoor, one of the most active and public Emirati human rights defenders not currently imprisoned and living in the UAE, was subjected to a spyware attack in an attempt to hack into his data. Mr. Ahmed Mansoor, also known for being one of the “UAE5”, a famous human rights case, is currently under state surveillance and under travel ban, a situation that hinders his work to promote and defend human rights and puts him at further risk of arrest and harassment from the authorities.

In September, the ICJHR launched a petition to call for the release of Dr. Al-Roken, a well-known human rights lawyer who has been a major
pillar for the promotion of human rights in the UAE. Dr. Al-Roken, an eminent human right defender who was persecuted for his peaceful
human rights work as a lawyer, is currently detained since his trial in 2013, where he was sentenced to 10 years of prison.

Forcibly disappeared in 2012, detained in a secret location and tortured, Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken today suffering from the consequences of those abuses and the poor prison conditions.

This year, with most of the eminent human rights defenders behind bars and the introduction of a strict repressive policy, the citizens that spoke up and promoted fundamental freedom were at risk of being arrested, persecuted and suffer human rights violations on the hand of the state security apparatus. Indeed, according to the Civicus Monitor, which tracks civic space, the UAE is classified as a “closed” country where “Public protest is impossible, online content is heavily censored and monitored while the state closely scrutinizes civil society organisations”1.


In 2016, we monitored the use of laws aiming to restrict human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country that have been used to harass and persecute human rights defenders. Since 2011, repressive laws on counter terrorism, peaceful association, cyber criminality as well as restrictive amendments of the current Emirati legislation have introduced flaws in the system through subjective and broad texts that are interpreted as needed by the authorities. Despite the safeguards to guarantee the rights and freedoms that they contain in

1 Civicus Monitor, UAE overview, (accessed on January 17, 2017).


accordance with international standards, those laws are used specifically to target critics of the government.

The Emirati authorities mainly use the Penal Code, the Federal Law No. of 2012 on Combating Cybercrimes and the Federal Law No.7 of 2014 on Combating Terrorism to impose strict restrictions on human rights defenders. For example, the above-mentioned Law on counter terrorism sanctions of death penalty activities that are considered to threaten the “national unity or social peace”, even if those actions are peaceful and is frequently used to repress freedom of association or expression.

In December 2016, the UAE authorities introduced one of the most significant changes to the Emirati legal framework by adopting the Federal Law no.7, which amended the Penal Code. The law introduced over 130 modifications to the Penal Code and the capital punishment in over twenty articles. The amendments impose the death penalty for crimes that remain vaguely defined in the text and therefore will be open to the interpretation of the authorities, an observation that is of high concern. Furthermore, Emirati officials have deliberately amended the articles with regards to punishment and criminalization in a vague and general way to facilitate the persecution of politicians, activists and bloggers and lengthen their detention period.



The ICJHR remains highly concerned with the increase of the persecutions of human rights defender’s families in the UAE by the UAE in 2016.

In July, we reported the abuses of the Al Rezin prison authorities who prohibited, on the first day of Eid and until the fifth day of feast, families to visit their detained relatives. This recurring problem was reported again on December 25 and 26 when the penitentiary authorities used the false pretext that the phones that allowed the communication through the visiting glass were broken to prevent family visits. Also, in the Al Watba prison, the duration and frequency of visits was reduced from 30 min twice a week to 15 min once a week.

In March 2016, we also denounced the case of Asma (29 years), Duaa (25 years) and Omar Abdul Razzaq (23 years) al-Siddiq, whose father, Mr. Mohammed Abdul Razzaq Siddiq, is known for being convicted in the UAE94 mass trial. Their nationalities were revoked without any legal basis or justification and they were forced to leave the country. The UAE authorities only revoked the nationality of the three siblings, among ten others, known for their background of online activism, which further demonstrates the practice of repression.




In 2016, the ICJHR has seen with preoccupation the introduction of new legislative texts that, combined with the already existing repressive legislative framework in matter of freedom of expression, strengthened the powers of the authorities to pursue anyone doubting the state's political system. The UAE has been ranked 119 in the Press Freedom Index, which categorizes the level of freedom of the press in a country.2

In July, an Anti-Discrimination Law that criminalizes any actions that provoke religious hatred or insult religious convictions through any form of expression was adopted. The text criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, or transmission of provocative material by any means, including mainstream and online medias. Moreover, the laws prohibit the criticism of national rulers and any kind of speech that may create or encourage social unrest.

The December amendments to the Penal Code furthered the criminalisation of the right to freedom of expression and opinion through the inclusion of article 182 bis that states the following: “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." They also introduced severe punishment for promoting opinions interfering with the “unity” and “social peace of the state”, terms that can be interpreted widely.


In 2016, the country was in 68th position (out of a 100) of the Freedom on the Net Index, a ranking that measures how the governments and other actors restrict rights online.3 This indicates clearly the severe lack of freedom of expression online in the UAE. Indeed, as

2 Reporters Without Borders, 2016 World Press Freedom Index, (accessed on January 27, 2017).
3 Freedom House, Freedom of the Net 2016, United Arab Emirates Country Profile, (accessed on February 1, 2017).


highlighted in our report on the situation of Freedom of expression issued in May, bloggers, activists and online activists are the most at risk to be persecuted in the UAE.
In February, an Emirati blogger, Mr. Saleh bin Mohammed bin Saleh, was sentenced to three years of imprisonment for posting on his twitter account. The following month, the Federal Supreme Court convicted two fellow bloggers, Mr. Abdullah Newab Balushi, who had posted a video and a poem on Whatsapp, and Mr. Marwan Mohammed Atiq bin Sufyan Al Falasi, creator of a website, to five years in prison on the grounds of the Federal Law No. 5 of 2012 on combating cybercrimes.

In October, Ms. Amina Alabdouli was sentenced to five years in prison for creating two Twitter accounts and posting information to allegedly incite hatred against the UAE and for creating an unrest of the public order. She was also charged for mocking the state’s t reputation, diffusing 'false' information and allegedly endangering the UAE’s relations with other countries.

We also recall the ongoing arbitrary detention without a trial of Mr. Tayseer Najjar, a Jordanian journalist held since 2015 in connection with a comment he posted on Facebook regarding the presence of the Egyptian and Israeli military in Gaza. We would like to furthermore recall the case of Mr. Osama Al-Najjar, who was arrested on on March

17, 2014, for exposing on his twitter account the allegations of ill- treatment and the unfair trial his father, Mr. Hussein al-Najjar who was tried within the known case of the "UAE 94". Despite having spent more than the three quarters of his three years of imprisonment sentence which was issued on November 2014, and in violation of national law, he has not been released yet.



The past years have seen the adoption of new legislations aiming to further prevent human rights defenders and civil society from participating to the social sphere. In fact, organisations allegedly endangered the state security were outlawed. Therefore, the right to freedom of assembly and association in the country has been strongly hindered through the legislation and in practice.

The Federal Law No. 2 on anti-discrimination and anti-hate adopted last year, contains provisions hindering the rights to freedom of expression and association, and allows the courts to dismantle associations and arrest their creators.
Moreover, the Federal Law No.7 of 2014 on Combating Terrorism contains a whole chapter on the offences related to terrorist organisations that prohibits to join, create, participate, prepare or even gather participants to an organisation classified as terrorist. However, the definition of a terrorist organisation remains vague and subjective in the text, which leads to further interpretation.

In addition, the amendments of the Penal Code introduce the punishment death penalty or life imprisonment to anyone found guilty of establishing an organisation aimed at 'overthrowing the government' or 'fighting against constitutional principles'. If the recent law has not had important consequences yet, we remain very concerned with this new modification that will be used to silence peaceful assemblies in the UAE.

Therefore, one of Dr. Bin Ghaith’s charges currently held against him is to allegedly cooperate with the organisation of the “Ummah political parties in the gulf region” particularly with the “Emirates Ummah Party”, which was categorized as a terrorist party by the UAE officials in 2012. Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith was also accused of knowingly attending meetings of the UAE Ummah party, giving lectures, communicating with its members, as well as advising them and participating in their future strategy aiming to implement illegally the idea of a political opposition.



The abovementioned Federal Law No.7 of 2014 on Combating Terrorism that criminalizes human rights defenders has been broadly used throughout 2016 on reformists and activists. The text uses vague terms to define terrorism and fails to meet international standards as reported in May 2015 by the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

In 2016, these laws were used to suppress freedom of expression and every opinion seen to oppose the policy of the state, which was qualified to be a threat to nationalise security. In fact, any form of expression through mainstream or online media and any gathering that seemed to question the state’s policy – or the friendly countries is deemed to be perceived as an attack against the prestige of the state.

Moreover, the cases prosecuted for national security reasons are under the jurisdiction of the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court, a Court that, as the highest court of the federal justice system, allowed no appeal to its judgements. Until the end of 2016, the sentences of activists convicted in trials treated by the Supreme Court were final and could not be appealed, which constituted a serious violation to their right to a fair trial.

The well-known case of the UAE94, where 94 activists were persecuted solely for criticizing the government policies, is one amongst the most significant cases that testify of that crackdown in the name of national security. In 2016, we reported, amongst others, the above- mentioned cases of Mr. Tayseer Najjar, the Alabdouli siblings, Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, all criminalized in the name of the state security and prestige.

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