UAE: Appeal for free expression to be tolerated as Hay Festival Abu Dhabi brings authors to the Emirates
As the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi opens on February 25-28 2020 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), we the undersigned call on the authorities to show their respect for the right to freedom of expression by freeing all jailed human rights defenders, including writers and a poet, who are in prison for expressing themselves peacefully online. The UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance is supporting a platform where artists can be heard in a country where freedom of expression is not always tolerated. We support the efforts of participants speak up in favour of all those whose voices have been silenced in the UAE. We support the calls for the authorities to allow prisoners of conscience to receive books and reading materials, as well as complying with other international standards for prisoners.
Since the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the UAE government has increased its brutal clampdown on fundamental human rights and freedoms. The authorities have prosecuted and imprisoned scores of human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and critics, and systematically silenced peaceful dissenting voices. The crackdown on the right to freedom of expression has been so severe that, today, freedom of speech and civic space are virtually nonexistent for citizens of the country.
Under the pretext of national security, the UAE authorities have subjected human rights defenders and activists to arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and harsh prison sentences, solely for their peaceful human rights activities.
The country’s most prominent human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor, is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence after being convicted of the spurious offence of “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leaders” in reprisal for his peaceful human rights activism, including through his posts on social media. Mansoor is being held in solitary confinement in an isolation ward in Al-Sadr prison, Abu Dhabi, in dire conditions with no bed or books. In the nearly three years since his arrest in March 2017, he has only been permitted to leave his small cell for a handful of family visits and has been allowed outside to the prison sports yard only once for fresh air. In protest, he went on two separate hunger strikes which have damaged his health and at times he has been refused adequate medical care. By holding Mansoor in such appalling conditions, the UAE authorities are violating the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment under international law.
Mansoor, who has four young sons, is also an engineer and a poet. He serves on the advisory boards of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. In October 2015, Mansoor gained international recognition when he received the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.
Mansoor undertook a month-long hunger strike in March 2019 to protest his punitive prison conditions and unfair conviction. In May, seven United Nations independent experts expressed grave concern about Mansoor. Again, in early September 2019, after being tortured through beatings by prison guards, he began a second hunger strike. Because there are no independent human rights NGOs in the country, it is very difficult to obtain news about his current situation, including whether or not he remains on the hunger strike since the last report that he was still not eating solid food in January 2020, leaving him unable to walk.
Other prisoners have been tortured in prison in the UAE. A Polish fitness expert, Artur Ligęska, was held in the same isolation ward as Mansoor, in conditions he described as “medieval”. After his charges were dismissed and he was freed, Ligęska wrote a book in which he recounted the prison conditions in Al-Sadr’s isolation wing, where prisoners were held without running water for many months in very unhygienic conditions, and some were subjected to torture, abuse and sexual assault. He was instrumental in getting the news about Mansoor’s hunger strike out to the world from prison in March 2019, at great personal risk.
In October 2019, over 140 NGOs worldwide appealed to the UAE authorities to free Ahmed Mansoor, who spent his 50th birthday in isolation and on hunger strike.
Other human rights defenders have faced similar treatment in prison, where they are often held in isolation, resorting to hunger strikes to try to bring attention to their unjust imprisonment and ill-treatment in detention.
Human rights lawyer Dr Mohammed Al-Roken, who has been detained since July 2012 solely for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of expression and association, including through his work as a lawyer, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for signing an online petition calling for political reform along with 132 other people. He was convicted and sentenced following a grossly unfair mass trial of 94 people (known as the “UAE 94” trial) including human rights lawyers, judges and student activists. Among them, was another human rights lawyer, Dr Mohammed Al-Mansoori who was also arrested in July 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Dr Al-Mansoori was not allowed to contact his family for over a year until recently. Both men are being held in Al-Razeen prison, a maximum-security prison in the desert of Abu Dhabi, which is used to hold activists, government critics, and human rights defenders. They face arbitrary disciplinary measures, such as solitary confinement, deprivation of family visits, and intrusive body searches.
Dr Al-Roken was a member of the International Association of Lawyers (UIA) and the International Bar Association, and both Dr Al-Roken and Dr Al-Mansoori served as president of the UAE’s Jurists Association before its arbitrary dissolution by the authorities in 2011. Dr Al-Roken has authored books on human rights, constitutional law, and counterterrorism. He dedicated his career to providing legal assistance to victims of human rights violations in the UAE, for which he was awarded the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize in 2017. Over two dozen NGOs called for his release in November 2019.
Academic and economist Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Paris-Sorbonne University, was sentenced on March 29 2017 to 10 years in prison for critical comments he made online about human rights violations in the UAE and Egypt.
In a letter written from prison, Dr. Bin Ghaith stated that “the verdict proves that there is no place for freedom of speech in this country” and announced that he would begin a hunger strike until he was released unconditionally. He has also undertaken subsequent hunger strikes to protest conditions in Al-Razeen prison, including to demand his immediate release following the pardon of British academic Matthew Hedges on November 26 2018, a week after he was sentenced to life in prison on spying allegations. Hedges was held, mainly incommunicado and in degrading and inhuman conditions for seven months, until he faced an unfair trial on charges of spying for the UK government.
In October 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution, calling on the UAE to, among other things, stop all forms of harassment and immediately lift the travel ban against human rights defenders, and urging the authorities to “guarantee in all circumstances that human rights defenders in the UAE are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities, both inside and outside the country, without fear of reprisals.”
The Hay Festival Abu Dhabi is supported by the UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance, in a country that does not tolerate dissenting voices. Regrettably, the UAE government devotes more effort to concealing its human rights abuses than to addressing them and invests heavily in the funding and sponsorship of institutions, events and initiatives that are aimed at projecting a favourable image to the outside world.
With the world’s eyes on the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, we urge the authorities to consider using this opportunity to free our jailed friends and colleagues, and failing that, to at least allow prisoners of conscience to receive books and reading materials, to have regular visits with family, to be allowed outside of their isolation cells to visit the canteen or go outside in the sun. In particular, we ask that Ahmed Mansoor be given a bed and a mattress so that he no longer has to sleep on the floor, and that the prison cease punishing him for public appeals that are made on his behalf. We ask the authorities to make some improvements to their prison conditions as a sign of goodwill and respect for people who wish to organize and participate in events in the UAE such as the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi in future.