United Arab Emirates: Authorities must end grave violations against human rights defenders


In this short report, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) has documented grave human rights violations committed by the authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) against activists and human rights defenders, both in prison and after their release. They must first renounce their human rights work in order to be freed, or risk being held in prison for years past the end of their sentences.

The UAE has developed a practise of bargaining with imprisoned activists and prisoners of conscience to force them to appear in the media where they must repent and express remorse in exchange for their release. When they are released, they are then placed under house arrest and must wear an electronic ankle bracelet so the authorities can keep track of their movements. Many activists are kept in prison well past the end of their sentences for allegedly posing a threat to state security and on the grounds that they are still in need of rehabilitation. Prisoners who are due for release from Al-Razeen Prison are often transferred to the Counseling Centre, which despite its name is simply a different section of the prison isolated from other parts.  

I. Bargaining with activists and prisoners of conscience for their release

On 08 August 2019, the authorities released a video titled “Returning to the Lap of the Nation,” which featured activists Othman Abdullah Ibrahim Al-Shehhi, Bader Hussain Al-Bahri and Osama Hussain Al-Najjar. Activist Abdulrahman bin Subaih Al-Suwaidi also appeared in several media interviews. In the video and interviews, the activists announced that they regretted their actions and repented the activities which led to their arrest. However, they did not mention being subjected to torture and ill-treatment. GCHR has compared their photos before their arrests with the images in these recordings, which clearly show the ill-treatment they were subjected to during their detention, leading to the conclusion that they were forced to appear in the media in exchange for their release.

i. Abdulrahman bin Subaih Al-Suwaidi

Abdulrahman bin Subaih Al-Suwaidi, 55 years old, is a member of the group of prisoners known collectively as the UAE 94. On 02 July 2013, the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhab convicted 69 of the 94 defendants, including Al-Suwaidi and seven others tried in absentia, and acquitted 25 people. Al-Suwaidi was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. The defendants included many people who had achieved prominence in the UAE in their respective fields in the law, education, academia, business, and as government advisers. The court sentenced them to prison terms of between seven and 15 years. They were convicted of belonging to a group that established an organisation aimed to overthrow the government, a charge they all denied. They were not granted the right to appeal the ruling.

Many well-known figures were among those sentenced, such as prominent human rights lawyer and law professor Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, who has written a number of books and journal articles on human rights, freedom of expression, and counter-terror laws; high profile lawyers Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansoori and Salem Al-Shehhi; judge Mohammed Saeed Al-Abdouli; law professor and former judge Dr. Ahmed Al-Zaabi; lawyer and university professor Dr. Hadef Al-Owais; senior member of the Ras Al-Khaimah ruling family Sheikh Dr. Sultan Kayed Mohammed Al-Qassimi; businessman Khalid Al-Shaiba Al-Nuaimi; blogger and former teacher Saleh Mohammed Al-Dhufairi; student leader Abdulla Al-Hajri; and student blogger Khalifa Al-Nuaimi who, before his arrest, had kept an active blog where he expressed criticism of the human rights situation in the UAE and the heavy-handed approach of the State Security apparatus.

Others convicted at the trial included seven activists, known as the “UAE 7”, who had their citizenship arbitrarily withdrawn in 2011 and were told to leave the country. They are economist Ahmed Ghaith Al-Suwaidi; teacher Hussain Al-Jabri; former long-term employee of the Ministry of Presidential Affairs Hassan Al-Jabri; teacher Ibrahim Hassan Al-Marzouqi; former teacher Sheikh Mohammed Al-Sadeeq; Dr. Shahin Abdullah Al-Hosni; and Dr. Ali Hussain Al-Hammadi.

In November 2013, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) issued an Opinion on the UAE 94 case, concluding that the UAE government had deprived the defendants of their right to a fair trial, enshrined in Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The WGAD found that the arrest and detention of the individuals had resulted from the exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, guaranteed under articles 19 and 20 of the UDHR, stating that the restrictions on those rights could not be considered to be proportionate and justified. The WGAD declared the arrest and detention of the 61 defendants who were imprisoned following the mass trial to be arbitrary and called on the UAE authorities to release them and afford them appropriate reparation.

On 18 December 2015, authorities in Indonesia, in cooperation with the UAE state security agency, kidnapped and forcibly deported Al-Suwaidi to the UAE. He was detained upon return in an unknown location, and there are reliable reports that he was subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

On 08 March 2019, before his release, Al-Suwaidi appeared in a television interview widely published by the official media, declaring his remorse for his previous peaceful activities, condemning himself and expressing his repentance, as well as denying reports of his kidnapping, forced disappearance, torture, ill-treatment and unfair trial.

On 16 May 2019, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, President of the UAE, issued a pardon for Al-Suwaidi, who was released after being forced to appear in several media interviews.

ii. Othman Abdullah Al-Shehhi

On 24 July 2013, the State Security Aparatus arrested Internet activist and engineer Othman Abdullah Al-Shehhi, who is currently 47 years old, and was holding the position of senior engineer in an Emirati telecommunications company. They raided his house in Ras Al-Khaimah without explaining the reasons or providing a warrant, and took him to an unknown location. Local reports confirmed that he was placed in solitary confinement and subjected to torture during his detention.

On 10 March 2014, the Federal Supreme Court sentenced Al-Shehhi to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of half a million UAE Dirhams (approximately US$136,000) in connection with his support for the reformist movement and prisoners of conscience. He was convicted under Article 182 of the Federal Penal Code and Articles 24 and 41 of the Cyber Crime Law on charges including “belonging to a secret organisation” and “creating and managing pages on the social media website Twitter and posting news and ideas that incite hatred and undermine public order." . His mother passed away on 14 July 2014, and he was prevented from participating in her funeral.

He was released on 08 August 2019, after being forced to appear in the video mentioned above.

iii. Bader Hussain Al-Bahri

Activist Bader Hussain Al-Bahri, head of the Social Rehabilitation Department at the Rehabilitation and Training Centre in Dubai, was arrested by the State Security Apparatus on 22 April 2014, when he was summoned by the Al-Qusais Police Station. Upon his arrival, he was arrested by officers of the State Security Apparatus, who accompanied him to his home in Dubai and searched the house completely, placing his family, both boys and girls, in separate rooms, under intense intimidation, guarded by security personnel. They did not find anything worth mentioning, but they confiscated his passport and took him to an unknown destination.

In the early morning hours of the following day, he was transferred to Abu Dhabi, without presenting him to the Public Prosecution in the Emirate in which he was arrested. Local reports confirmed that he was held in a secret prison in Abu Dhabi of the State Security Agency, where he was subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

On 13 June 2016, he was sentenced by the Federal Supreme Court to three years imprisonment where he was convicted of several charges including supporting the reform movement, Defending the UAE 94, collecting donations, and participating in peaceful charitable activities.

He ended his sentence on 22 April  2017, but was released only on 08 August 2019 after he was forced to appear in the video above and declare repentance.

iv. Osama Hussain Al-Najjar

On 17 March 2014, Internet activist Osama Hussain Al-Najjar, who was 25 years old at the time, was violently arrested after he published a series of tweets in defense of the UAE 94 detainees. His last tweet was in defense of his activist father Hussain Ali Al-Najjar, who is one of the UAE 94. He stated, “Your Highness, we do not hate our country and do not forget the injustice of the oppressor even if our mothers do not tell us. The people responsible for imprisoning and harassing my father for the past 20 months owe him.”

Hussain Ali Al-Najjar, 57, who holds a Bachelor's degree in Science and Education with a specialisation in Physics and Mathematics and a Masters degree in Environmental Sciences, worked as a high school physics teacher and was the owner of the first institution specialising in educational consulting. He was arbitrarily arrested without a warrant on 16 July 2012, while he was organising an educational course in the Fujairah Municipality where he was taken and detained in an unknown location until he appeared in court. On 02 July 2013, the Abu Dhabi Federal Supreme Court, within the show trial referred to above, sentenced 56 members of the UAE 94, including Hussain Ali Al Najjar, to 10 years in prison, followed by an additional three years under probation.

According to GCHR’s information Osama Al-Najjar was subjected to torture from the moment of his arrest, during his detention in a secret detention centre for four days, and after he was transferred to Al-Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi, up until he appeared before the court on 20 March 2014.

The charges against him include belonging to Al-Islah, offending the State via Twitter, instigating hatred against the State via Twitter and spreading lies about the torture of his father. On 25 November 2014, the State Security Court at the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced him to three years in prison and 500,000 Emirati Dirham (approximately US$136,000). During a hearing which lasted only ten minutes, presiding judge Mohammad Al-Tunaigi also ordered the confiscation of the on-line activist's electronic equipment and the permanent closure of all his accounts on social media websites. There is no opportunity to appeal the sentence.

Osama Al-Najjar was due for release from Al-Razeen prison on 17 March 2017, after he served his full sentence, but the State Security Office of the Federal Supreme Court decided to extend the period of his detention indefinitely at the request of the Public Prosecution on the pretext that he was still a “threat”, and that therefore he should be held in the Counseling Centre, which is as mentioned above, just another section within the prison.

On 08 August 2019, he was released in exchange for appearing in the media and declaring repentance and remorse and condemning his previous online activities.

II. Restricting freedom of movement for released activists 

Osman Abdullah Al-Shehhi, Bader Hussain Al-Bahri, Osama Hussain Al-Najjar, and Abdullah bin Subaih Al-Suwaidi are still under house arrest and closely monitored through the use of electronic ankle bracelets to ensure that they comply with the conditions of house arrest and not leave their homes. According to local sources familiar with their cases, it is very rare to see them outside as they would need the approval of the security forces. Also, a ban was imposed to prevent them from traveling outside the country.

This runs contrary to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and freedom to choose his residence within the borders of the state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

III. Activists who remain in prison counseling section despite having completed their sentences 

Eleven activists and prisoners of conscience are in prison despite having completed their sentences and passing the actual date of their release. The UAE authorities refuse to release them, claiming that they pose a threat to national security and are in need of rehabilitation and therefore have been transferred to the counseling section. This is not only inconsistent with international human rights law, but also contradicts the UAE penal code itself. Usually, convicted prisoners are released after serving two-thirds of the sentence.

The names of the prisoners who completed their sentences but remain in prison are as follows:

1. Ahmed Mohammed Al-Mulla: He was arrested on 01 May 2014 and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. His sentence ended on 01 May 2017.

2. Faisal Ali Al-Shehhi: He was arrested on 01 May 2014 and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. His sentence ended on 01 May 2017.

3. Abdullah Ibrahim Al-Helou: He was arrested on 22 April 2014 and sentenced to three years' imprisonment. His sentence ended on 22 April 2017.

4. Saeed Abdullah Al-Buraimi: He was arrested on 26 March 2013 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. His sentence ended on 26 March 2018.

5. Abdulwahid Hassan Al-Shehhi: He was arrested on 26 March 2013 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. His sentence ended on 26 March 2018.

6. Khalifa Rabiaa: He was arrested on 23 July 2013 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. His sentence ended on 23 July 2018.

7. Abdullah Abdulkadir Al-Hajri: He was arrested on 16 July 2012 and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. His sentence ended on 16 July 2019.

8. Omran Ali Al-Harthi: He was arrested on 16 July 2012 and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. His sentence ended on 16 July 2019.

9. Fahd Abdulkadir Al-Hajri: He was arrested on 02 March 2013 and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. His sentence ended on 02 March 2020.

10. Mahmoud Hassan Al-Hosani: He was arrested on 16 July 2012 and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. His sentence ended on 16 July 2019.

11. Mansour Hassan Al-Ahmadi: He was arrested on 12 October 2012 and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. His sentence ended on 12 October 2019.

Prominent human rights defenders Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith and Ahmed Mansoor

GCHR is deeply concerned about the fate of human rights defenders Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith and Ahmed Mansoor, a member of the Advisory Board of GCHR, who both have suffered abuse and torture in prison, contrary to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Reliable reports received by GCHR indicate that the authorities continue to hold them in solitary confinement despite the deterioration of their health and general physical conditions, as well as their psychological well-being. Amid the spread of COVID-19 in the country, which led to the ban on family visits. They do not have access to proper telephone calls with their families, leaving them further isolated. The competent authorities, on direct orders from the State Security Apparatus, have refused to release them, even if only temporarily on humanitarian grounds. Both men have undertaken, in the past, hunger strikes to protest the prison conditions, including the lack of a bed or mattress for Mansoor, or books and access to sunshine and exercise.

IV. Conclusion

The Emirati authorities and in particular the State Security Aparatus have committed grave violations not only of the federal constitution and federal penal law, but of most of the articles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

They have violated in particular:

  • Article 3, which states that, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of his person;"
  • Article 5, which states that, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
  • Article 9 which says, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile."
  • Article 10 which states that, "Every human being, on an equal basis with others, has the right to have his case examined by an independent and impartial court, in a fair and public view, to adjudicate his rights and obligations and any criminal charge against him."
  • Article 11 stipulates that, “Every person accused of a crime is considered innocent until proven guilty of having committed a law in a public trial in which he has been provided with all the necessary guarantees to defend himself.”

V. Recommendations

GCHR calls on the entire international community, especially governments that have influence in the UAE such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and those of the European Union, and all United Nations mechanisms, in particular the relevant special rapporteurs, to intervene immediately to help end these grave violations against human rights defenders. We further ask UN and EU representatives to request visits to all imprisoned detainees whose names appear in this appeal, as well as other UAE 94 members, ensuring their physical and health safety.

We also urge the Manchester City Club administration, as well as the Club's Supporters' Association, to condemn these flagrant violations by the ruling family of the Emirates, which owns the club as part of its marketing to promote a civilised face of the country abroad while it is harshly suppressing public freedoms within the UAE.

GCHR urges on the UAE authorities to:

  1. Immediately stop controlling the movement of Othman Abdullah Al-Shehhi, Badr Hussain Al-Bahri, Osama Hussain Al-Najjar and Abdul Rahman bin Subaih Al-Suwaidi, and allow them to travel outside the country if they want to;
  2. Immediately and unconditionally release Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith, Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansoori, members of the UAE 94 and other prisoners of conscience who were arrested and detained solely because of their peaceful human rights activities;
  3. Waiting for their release, ensuring that Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith, Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansoori and other prisoners of conscience are treated in line with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, including allowing them proper access to their families, adequate health care, beds, and mattresses, fresh air and books; and
  4. Allow United Nations experts, EU representatives or international NGOs to visit Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith, Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansoori, and other prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders detained in UAE prisons.