UAE: despite pledge to hold 'inclusive' COP, 64 dissidents still in Emirati jails

At least 64 Emiratis have been unlawfully jailed because of actual or perceived political opposition to the authorities

Prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor among those held

‘If the UAE government is serious about its pledge to hold an inclusive COP, then it must start by immediately releasing the dozens of Emiratis left languishing in prison’ - Agnès Callamard

The United Arab Emirates has ignored a chorus of calls from international civil society to demonstrate it respects human rights ahead of this year’s COP28 climate change conference, said Amnesty International.

The hosts of COP28 - which begins next week - have refused to release imprisoned dissidents and have completely refused to engage with Amnesty and other human rights groups.

For more than five years, all of Amnesty’s communications with the UAE government about pressing human rights issues have gone unanswered, and the Government has rejected all approaches regarding a dialogue on its human rights record again this year. During 2023, hundreds of international civil society groups have appealed to the UAE to release imprisoned dissidents and allow civil society to function freely in the country. Instead, the Government has refused to even engage in a discussion about its domestic human rights record or undertake reforms.

The Emirati government’s legislation and practices impose severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, while also violating a broad range of other rights including the right to privacy and migrants’ rights. Emirati law criminalises criticism of the country’s rulers and the state, as well as the staging of demonstrations “infringing on public order”, the publication of anything “harming the national currency”, causing “confusion” about the economy or “harming state interests” (which can be punished by death or life in prison), and any announcement of “non-loyalty to [the state] leadership”, “incitement to sinfulness or indecency” or acts deemed to be “infringing on public morals”. 

None of these laws has been repealed since the UAE was named COP28 host, and the text of the Host Country Agreement - which will determine whether and how these laws apply on the conference grounds - remains secret with only a week remaining before the conference begins.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“If the UAE government is serious about its pledge to hold an ‘inclusive’ COP, then it must start by immediately releasing the dozens of Emiratis left languishing in prison simply for expressing their opinions. 

“The authorities must also cease unlawful surveillance and repeal laws that infringe upon human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

“Anything less exposes the UAE’s COP presidency as a PR tactic designed to distract from the grim reality of the authorities’ notorious human rights record.

“Releasing those unjustly imprisoned, many for simply demanding democracy in the UAE, would send a crucial message that the UAE is prepared to fulfil its human rights obligations.

“It would also provide hope that COP28 could proceed in an environment free from fear and intimidation.”

Mass trial of ‘UAE-94’

At least 64 Emirati citizens remain unlawfully imprisoned because of actual or perceived political opposition to the authorities. The majority of these prisoners date from a mass trial in 2012-13 in which 94 Emiratis (known as the “UAE-94”) were tried for calling for reform and democratic change, including some who had signed a petition calling for an elected legislature in the UAE. Many of the defendants in the trial were held incommunicado for months and some testified that they had been tortured into making “confessions” - spurious confessions which the court nevertheless later used as evidence to convict them.

The mass trial included two prominent human rights lawyers - Mohamed al-Mansoori and Mohamed al-Roken - who were past presidents of the Jurists Association, which had been national body for Emirati legal professionals until the government dissolved its leadership in 2012. After 2013, Ahmed Mansoor, a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Advisory Committee, became the last Emirati human rights defender speaking out and working in the country. In 2017, the authorities also imprisoned him for “insulting the UAE and its symbols”, among other supposed offences.

The Emirati authorities have also continued to pursue members of the UAE-94 who fled abroad. In May this year, the authorities announced that they had imprisoned Khalaf al-Rumaithi, one of the 94 defendants, after the Jordanian security forces deported him at the UAE’s request. In June, UAE state security summoned Mansoor al-Ahmadi, a UAE-94 prisoner released after more than eight years in prison, placing him in incommunicado detention. 

Exploitation of migrant workers 

Emirati law provides no right to a decent livelihood or decent working conditions for migrant workers. Only eight per cent of Emiratis work in the private sector, where most of the work is done by migrant labour. Unlike the public sector which employs mostly Emiratis, the private sector has no minimum wage. “Service workers”, meaning those who work in their employer’s household, can be legally made to work for up to 72 hours per week. In 2021, following racially-motivated mass arrests, the UAE deported at least 376 African migrant workers without due process, in some cases after holding them incommunicado for months and subjecting them to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. 

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