Two years and two days ago, on July 2, 2013, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) convicted sixty-nine government critics and reform activists in a trial that Amnesty International called “grossly unfair.” Today, sixty-four of them remain in prison.
Initially, ninety-four defendants, including prominent lawyers, human rights defenders, academics, former government officials and even judges – most of them members of an Emirati Islamist group, al-Islah – stood trial on the charge of establishing an organization that aimed to overthrow the government. All ninety-four denied the charge. Known as the “UAE 94” trial, the proceedings began on March 4, 2013 in Abu Dhabi.
In addition to prosecuting defendants for dissent protected by international free speech norms, the trial also violated international criminal law standards. Most defendants were held in secret detention facilities for months, before the trial began. Few had access to lawyers, and many reported experiencing torture and psychological abuse in pre-trial detention. During the proceedings, the judge accepted “confessions” obtained under duress as evidence and refused to order an independent investigation into allegations of mistreatment.
In June of that year, Alkarama, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that UAE security officers had subjected detainees to mistreatment including torture, citing twenty-two statements written by some of the victims in the UAE 94 case.
At the time, Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said:
The UAE’s judicial system will lose all credibility if these allegations are swept under the carpet while the government’s critics are put behind bars. Unless the government investigates and takes action, it will be hard to avoid concluding that torture is routine practice in the UAE.
Less than a month later, on July 2, 2013, the court convicted sixty-nine defendants and denied them their right of appeal.
Since that time, crackdowns on dissent in the UAE have worsened. Authorities have used the country’s 2012 cybercrimes law to silence social media activists and human rights defenders who are fighting for freedom of expression online. In 2014, the government also enacted a widely criticized “counter-terror” law, which leverages the same discourse on terrorism seen around the region and world to demonize dissent.
Under the 2014 law, “terrorist organizations” are defined as groups that act to create a “direct or indirect terrorist outcome,” which is broadly defined as “stirring panic among a group of people” and “antagonizing the state.” Article 14 subjects anyone who disrupts “national unity or social peace” or works “to undermine the stability, safety, unity, sovereignty, or security of the State” to the death penalty or life in prison.
“In the UAE it’s now a case of ‘you’re with us or you’re a terrorist,’” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, said in 2014. “While the UAE proclaims to the world that it is leading the fight against extremist ideologies, it has empowered its courts to order the deaths of people they consider opponents of Islamic principles.”
The government has also encouraged its courts to ignore credible reports of torture and mistreatment. The UAE 94 case was and remains one among many sources of proof that, in the UAE as in many countries, “anti-terror” discourses and torture are inextricably linked.
In March 2014, the Gulf Center for Human Rights released a fifty-four-page report on torture and mistreatment of inmates in UAE prisons and secret detention centers, including detailed testimony and other evidence collected from fifty-seven prisoners. Many of these individuals had been detained, interrogated, and imprisoned on charges related to cybercrime and counter-terrorism laws, which criminalize almost all forms of internationally protected critical, free speech.
With Gulf States rapidly becoming the next frontier for terrorist attacks in the name of the self-titled “Islamic State,” hurling the T-word at journalists, human rights defenders, and lawyers working for a more stable and secure UAE is not only an injustice, it is a threat. Torture programs from the United States to Bahrain have proven that torture is not just wrong, it is ineffective in the fight against terrorism – real or imagined. By locking up and abusing its brightest thinkers and fiercest advocates for democracy and human rights – in grave violation of international law – the UAE is not protecting itself from terrorism. It is breeding the sort of discontent and lawlessness that feeds violence, extremism, and terrorist ideologies.