Concerned by the perceived threat of the Arab Spring as it washed over the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) opted to act defensively, eyeing its opposition as a possible third column. This week, 30 defendants – 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis – went on trial in the emirate Abu Dhabi, where they are accused of assisting the Muslim Brotherhood by creating a branch of the Islamist group.
“These cases are fabricated 100 percent,” Ahmed Mansoor, an independent human rights activist, told The Media Line. “We have enough evidence provided by the court and the prosecutor to show that they are fabricated. They have been talking about a secret organization for the UAE 94 [the name of the group of activists on trial], but it has a website, it has been meeting with the government for years … and the government is making it clear that they are above the law, and they will do whatever they want.”
Mansoor has been arrested by the UAE before. He was one of the original 133 signatories to a petition that circulated throughout the federation in early 2011 as the Arab Spring began. Mansoor said that he, like other political activists, was subjected to harsh treatment in prison.
“Of course you face all of the possible types of harassment, and I could name all the ways, from being arbitrarily detained, interrogated, arrested, taken to secret detentions, solitary confinement, and being held incommunicado for months,” Mansoor said. “And of course that leads you to fabrication of cases as what happens during your time in the secret detentions, you get basically tortured or ill treated, humiliated and all that. You get forced to sign a confession under those kind of conditions.”
According to other activists, the same issues have continued to plague the latest trial.
“There have been some problems with the judicial process,” said Rori Donaghy, the director of the London-based Emirate Center for Human Rights, to The Media Line
. “The Egyptian defendants have been held at a secret prison for a year, so we’re not entirely sure about their treatment during that year. And then there have been letters from previous defendants that revealed allegations of torture.”
The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven emirates, or states, of which Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the most prosperous. While economic booms and generous payouts and social services have largely spared the desert kingdoms from unrest, movements toward establishing representative governments have spawned harsh crackdowns on the population. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt created concern that its influence could spread to the Gulf as well. A trial in the UAE that was concluded in July sentenced 69 individuals to up to 10 years in prison for their involvement in domestic resistance to the state.
The current case deals with what is perceived to be the “foreign involvement” of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the court’s ruling, the men “established and administered the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE, calling for actions opposing the basic principles of rule in the UAE and with the aim of toppling the regime and seizing power.”
Some of the defendants have accused the UAE of using torture. According to Human Rights Watch, letters that were smuggled from prison alleged mistreatment at the hands of security forces.
Mansoor says that harassment extends beyond the penitentiary walls.
“You can be fired from your work. You can have promotions suspended,” he said. “They could deprive your children of scholarships, even if they are scoring the highest scores in the country. They put you on a travel ban for no reason. They shut down your businesses. They do not even allow electricity to be restored to your house.”
Mansoor claims that since his release from jail he has experienced this discrimination firsthand. He says he lost his job, his employer stole $140,000 from his severance, his car was stolen and he has been beaten twice at his university. Despite taking legal action, Mansoor said that the authorities have done nothing in response to these crimes.
In relation to the current case, rights activists believe that the defendants have little, if anything, to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“[The defendants] are individuals, most of whom are professionals,” Nicholas McGeehan, a London-based Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line
. “They are doctors, engineers, teachers who have been in the UAE, some of them up to 20 years. Some of them have raised children there. ... There are Egyptians who have moved across the region -- and they are part of that Diaspora -- who have established themselves. They seem to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In the wake of the overthrow of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, as the Arab Spring spread, the UAE began a pro-active crackdown on the opposition.
“In March 2011, there was a petition signed by 133 activists, prominent lawyers, and former politicians that called for an independent parliament that is representative,” Donaghy, of the Emirate Center for Human Rights, said. “The reaction [from the government] to that was to arrest people, put them on trial, and throw them in prison. They passed a media law that bans all criticism of the state online.”
The crackdown has been accompanied by a lack of dialogue over the requests of the protesters.
“There’s been no evidence that there’s been a move towards addressing any of the issues that had been raised, such as transparency and governance,” Drewery Dyke, a researcher with the Gulf team of Amnesty International, told The Media Line
. “Now they have morphed. The whole process is not assisted by the vague nature of the charges that relate to national security threats. They don’t flesh out what has taken place, and they usually undermine the culture of human rights.”
Dyke accused the UAE government of widespread persecution, saying that a “campaign of vilification has been led against not only these guys but the opposition.”
Even as the government was going after activists with a heavy hand, Mansoor says many wondered why they were pursuing these people at all.
“Nobody in fact really challenged the political structure or the ruling families and their legitimacy in the country,” Mansoor said. “And that is really the main point when it comes to the questions, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘Do the ruling families really have a threat against them?’ And the answer is no, they don’t.”
The UAE’s public relations campaign against dissenters has gone hand-in-hand with an increase in cooperation among countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman.
“The GCC countries are cooperating in an ever-closer way,” Dyke said. “The evidence suggests that the exchange in intelligence and the case information is greater than ever. The move that the overall GCC is making towards establishing an inter-GCC security pact is testament to a slowly growing link between them.”
A major concern expressed by international activists is the lack of accountability for the security forces.
“The UAE’s security business … appears to be functioning with complete impunity,” McGeehan said. “It will arrest whomever it wants, whenever it wants, and it will do whatever it wants to them … regardless of whatever evidence there is to back it up. We’ve had numerous cases of people who have been picked up for no reason. They’ve put in place this pretty brutal state security apparatus and given it free reign to operate.”
While other revolutions and crackdowns have faced intense scrutiny from the international community, the UAE has received little, if any, attention from other countries.
“Is there any pressure from the UK? The US? The EU? No,” McGeehan said. “The pressure to give these people a fair trial is coming from our organizations. We were some of the reasons why people in the first trial were convicted, for talking to human rights organizations.”
McGeehan also points out that the lack of a response is setting a precedent for the UAE’s actions.
“There’s no one going to bat for these guys. The UAE is becoming comfortable,” McGeehan said, “with the knowledge that it will get a free pass from its allies.”
For now, the United Arab Emirates has prevailed in suppressing its opposition. But with American diplomatic moves toward Iran and Syria, the region may have bigger issues on hand.
The Ministry of Justice in Abu Dhabi and the Egyptian Embassy in Abu Dhabi did not return The Media Line
’s calls.For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org