The 'UAE5' should have their convictions expunged

Responding to a decision earlier this week to commute the sentences of five United Arab Emirates activists who had been convicted of insulting UAE officials, a coalition of human rights organisations has called for their convictions themselves to be expunged.

The five men - known as the “UAE5” - were originally charged under article 176 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to publicly insult top officials, and with using the banned online political forum UAE Hewar. On Monday (28 November) the UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan commuted the sentences by the Federal Supreme Court.

However, commutation of the sentences may still leave the activists with a criminal record, a lawyer for the men has said.

While commuting the sentences was a positive step, the UAE authorities should now protect the activists and their associates from pro-government vigilantes, and immediately investigate the numerous threats against them, said the human rights coalition, which includes Alkarama (Dignity), Amnesty International, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Front Line Defenders, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Human Rights Watch, and Index on Censorship. The UAE authorities should exonerate them and expunge the conviction from their records, which otherwise will make it difficult for the men to find work and travel, the groups said.

The five men were arrested in April and their trial opened on 14 June in Abu Dhabi. They are: Ahmed Mansoor, an engineer and blogger and a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee and a member of ANHRI’s network; Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist and university lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi; and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis.

On 27 November, a panel of four judges found all five men guilty and sentenced Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent UAE reformer, to three years in prison, and the others to two years. In contravention of international fair trial standards, the detainees had no right of appeal because the case was prosecuted under state security procedures. The men were released on the evening of 28 November, after the UAE president commuted the sentences.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:

“The release of these men will not prevent such a travesty of justice from happening again. For this release to be more than a public relations exercise, it needs to be matched by the immediate decriminalisation of defamation and an overhaul of the justice system.”

Human Rights Watch Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson said:

“Freeing the UAE 5 is a positive step but they should never have spent a single day behind bars, let alone seven months.”

The coalition of human rights groups reviewed the messages allegedly posted by the accused, none of which do more than criticise government policy or political leaders. There is no evidence that the men used or incited violence in the course of their political activities. The rights groups have said that the prosecution of the five men violates the right to freedom of expression under the UAE’s constitution as well as international human rights law.

The groups said that the UAE should invite UN experts on freedom of expression and on the independence of judge and lawyers. A report by a trial observer representing the coalition found flagrant flaws in the administration of this case. Her recommendations included the dismissal of charges against the five. The authorities should also conduct an independent judicial review into their arrests and trial, which did not meet international due process standards, and compensate them for the more than seven months they spent in prison.

Meanwhile, the five men and their families have been the targets of a vicious smear campaign of threats, slander, and intimidation that the UAE authorities have failed to investigate or prosecute. In the most recent incident, on 27 November, a pro-government supporter assaulted a relative of one of the detainees and shouted threats and obscenities outside the courtroom, despite the heavy security presence after the verdict. An independent report on 25 November written on behalf of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, documented the threats by government sympathisers and the atmosphere of impunity in which they have been made.

Alkarama Legal Department Director Rachid Mesli said:

“The UAE 5 may finally be free, but their personal security is still at risk because of a smear campaign carried out with impunity. The authorities should stop looking the other way and start prosecuting those making death threats.”

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