The UAE is famous for its gleaming towers and golden beaches - a playground for the moneyed. But scratch below the surface and the Emirates have been increasingly cracking down on free speech and dissent.
Last month Abu Dhabi’s Supreme Court sentenced the Emirati rights activist Ahmed Mansoor to ten years in prison after finding him guilty of “defaming the nation” on social media.
It is a devastating ruling for one of the region’s most prominent and well respected human rights advocates, who in 2015 won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders for his tireless work promoting basic civil and political rights in the UAE.
According to local news outlets, Mansoor was accused of using social media to “spread rumours and lies about the UAE” by “publishing false information that damages the country’s reputation.”
On top of this hefty sentence, the court issued the maximum fine of $270,000 and ordered him to be placed on close surveillance for a further three years after his release.
Like so many before him, Mansoor was convicted in line with the UAE’s draconian cybercrime legislation. Instituted in 2012 as a means to quash dissent amid the tremors of the 'Arab Spring’, its vaguely worded provisions effectively criminalised the use of communication technology to be used to argue for political reform, criticising senior officials or organising unsolicited demonstrations.
In March of last year, Ahmed issued a call on Twitter for the release of Emirati political prisoner Osama al Najjar when the UAE authorities refused to release him at the end of his sentence.
The evening following the tweet, at around midnight, 12 plainclothes Emirati security officials raided Mansoor’s family home in Abu Dhabi confiscating all his communication devices. After searching the property for several hours, the 48-year-old father of four was then taken away to an undisclosed location.
In clear breach of international law, Mansoor went on to be held for over a year in solitary confinement in an unidentified location, without charge or access to proper legal counsel.
Up until a few weeks ago, a pervasive silence had hung over his case. In some respects, it still does. Despite being sentenced, no official state comment has been issued on the court ruling and his place of detention remains undisclosed, leaving Mansoor increasingly vulnerable to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.
His enforced disappearance and subsequent conviction has brought strong condemnation from significant sections of the international community.
Shortly following his arrest, a coalition of UN experts released a statement describing his detention as “a direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders everywhere.”
Moreover, dozens of NGOs, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, as well as public figures such as US professor and linguist, Noam Chomsky, have since issued calls for his release.
This support reflects the credible standing that Mansoor has gained over the years within the international human rights community. His fearless citizen-journalism, which provided regular on-the-ground updates of rights violations in the UAE, was a vital source of information for international NGOs looking to gain a credible assessment of the conditions inside the country - in this capacity, he held a seat on the advisory boards of Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.
As a consequence of his activism, Mansoor endured years of intimidation and abuse from the Emirati regime and its supporters.
Prior to his arrest, UAE authorities had imposed a travel ban on the rights activist and subjected him to constant surveillance. In a revelation that hit international headlines in 2016, a University of Toronto based research group, Citizen Lab, discovered that the UAE authorities had attempted to hack his iPhone with a piece of software bought from an Israeli security company for $1m, leading media outlets to dub Mansoor “The Million Dollar Dissident”. The story gained so much traction that Apple were forced to issue a special update to guard against future attacks.
This latest ruling will no doubt shock those who continue to herald the UAE as a beacon of liberal tolerance and modernity against the backdrop of an increasingly unstable and reactionary region; it is, indeed, seemingly a million miles away from the luxury and grandeur of Dubai’s golden sandy beaches and five-star hotels which daily cater to the rich and famous.
It will, however, come as little surprise to the rights groups and NGOs who have been following the darker side of Emirati society with more scrutiny over the last few years.
Since the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, the government have clamped down heavily on freedom of speech and expression within their borders, quashing even the mildest forms of dissent - so much so that the UAE now has one of the highest rates of political prisoners per-capita in the region.
In recent years, Amnesty International, as well as UN working bodies and other rights groups, have noted a significant spike in cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and torture in the country.
Prior to his arrest last year, Mansoor would frequently refer to himself as “the last person talking” openly about human rights abuses in the UAE. It was thought that his international standing afforded him some form of protection from the worst excesses of the Emirati security state, and for years, it did. After briefly detaining him along with four other rights activists in 2011, the government were forced to pardon Mansoor amid a public outcry.
It remains to be seen whether this scenario will be repeated. One thing is for sure though: such a brave man must not be condemned to simply disappear in silence.
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