(Abu Dhabi) – Paris-Sorbonne University and its Emirati partner, Sorbonne Abu Dhabi University, should break their six-month silence and condemn the trial and imprisonment of the Sorbonne lecturer Nasser bin Ghaith, Human Rights Watch said today. Bin Ghaith, who has lectured at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi University since 2009, was teaching an intensive class the very week he was arrested, on April 9, 2011, according to interviews and documents obtained by Human Rights Watch.
Authorities have charged bin Ghaith and four other men with “publicly insulting” ruling officials in an internet forum. Bin Ghaith’s specific charge relates to an article that he allegedly wrote that mentions the Crown Prince. Despite mounting pressure from international rights groups and students at Paris Sorbonne University to speak up, Sorbonne has not only refused to criticize the UAE authorities but has also attempted to distance itself from bin Ghaith.
“The UAE’s case against Nasser bin Ghaith is an affront to one of Sorbonne’s core values – peaceful free expression,” said Jean-Marie Fardeau, France director at Human Rights Watch. “This is a very basic test of whether the Abu Dhabi Sorbonne intends to promote liberal educational values in the UAE or to ignore the repression of those values by its authoritarian patron.”
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, say the charges against bin Ghaith are baseless and politically motivated and have demanded that UAE authorities release the men immediately and unconditionally. Their trial has been marked by procedural flaws and has violated the most basic defense rights of the accused.
Although Paris-Sorbonne University and Sorbonne Abu Dhabi are legally independent entities, they maintain very close affiliations. By agreement, Sorbonne Abu Dhabi’s board is chaired by the president of Paris Sorbonne University.The French University receives 15 percent of the annual fees paid by Sorbonne Abu Dhabi students.
Sorbonne University has attempted to distance itself from bin Ghaith to justify its silence. On September 26, Paris-Sorbonne University’s President Georges Molinié issued a public statement saying that bin Ghaith’s prosecution was unrelated to his university lectures and that the university could not “comment on this individual case as an institution.”
On June 10, the Paris-Sorbonne board of directors voted down a motion by students’ groups that would have expressed the university’s support for freedom of speech, emphasizing that no one in the UAE or elsewhere should be jailed for expressing their opinion.
In April, in response to a Human Rights Watch letter demanding action, Paris Sorbonne distanced itself from bin Ghaith and tried to minimize his role, calling him an “external lecturer” and curtly suggesting that Human Rights Watch “turn to the UAE government” for more information. Sorbonne Abu Dhabi has not issued any public statement.
“Each and every Sorbonne faculty member should think long and hard about what it would mean if the UAE or any other government were persecuting him or her for expressing political views, as their university administration stood by and watched in silence,” Fardeau said. “Are the fees from Abu Dhabi worth a basic attack on freedom of expression?”
Bin Ghaith remains behind bars. The Supreme Court has on multiple occasions either denied or failed to rule on motions to release him and the other defendants on bail, even though none of them are charged with a violent offense and the authorities have not suggested that they pose a flight risk.
On the day of bin Ghaith’s arrest, state security forces confiscated computers, documents, and family videos during a four-hour search of his home in Dubai. Security forces shackled him in the back seat of a state security vehicle for 18 hours, refusing to let him go to the bathroom or perform his prayers.
Between April 10 and 12, bin Ghaith was scheduled to finish teaching his international economics law class at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi. Instead, he remained in solitary confinement in a dirty cell without access to either a lawyer or his family.
“Professor bin Ghaith is very well-respected by his students, and many of us are deeply concerned about what has happened to him,” a Sorbonne student who was enrolled in bin Ghaith’s class told Human Rights Watch on October 5. “We were all shocked when we heard about his arrest and the information that was being sent to us on BlackBerry and Facebook that tried to portray him as a traitor. It didn’t make any sense to us and was inconsistent with everything we knew about his character.”
According to bin Ghaith, prison authorities have encouraged other inmates at al-Wathba prison to harass him. After he had an altercation with another prisoner in late August, prison authorities chained him in solitary confinement in a cell without air conditioning despite the 40-degree Celsius heat.
Because the case is being prosecuted under state security procedures, the Supreme Court is hearing the charges in the first instance, affording no right to appeal. The court did not allow defense lawyers to cross-examine one prosecution witness and has not allowed sufficient time to cross-examine others, allowed the defense only one witness, and held the first four hearings in secret. The court has not allowed the defendants to review the evidence and charges against them, including evidence collected by the state security prosecution during the investigative period.
“To this day, I am not entirely certain what the charge or charges against me are,” said an October 1 statement from bin Ghaith that was leaked out of prison. “The prosecution says that I am accused of insulting the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, but the court asks questions about attempts to overthrow the regime, incite public opinion, shake stability, spread civil strife, and disclose high state secrets.” The statement says that bin Ghaith and the others have boycotted the proceedings because they are unfair:
I have reached an unshakeable conviction that this court, measured against international norms of justice, is merely a farce and facade meant to legitimize and make credible verdicts and penalties that may have already been decided. It is purely an attempt to punish me and those with me for our political opinions and our stances on certain national issues. Thus, I refuse to play the role written for me or to participate in this trial that does not rise to the standards of a fair trial.
The other activists who went on trial with bin Ghaith, also arrested in April, are Ahmed Mansoor, an engineer and blogger, and the online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis.
Since their detention, all five defendants, their family members, and lawyers have been the targets of inflammatory articles in some UAE media, a vicious online smear campaign, and even death threats. Pro-government demonstrators have denounced the accused at public gatherings and even at rallies outside court hearings. To date, authorities have not investigated the threats or prosecuted those responsible.
“My husband is a patriot, he loves his country and will work to improve his country until the day that he dies,” Waedad Belaila, bin Ghaith’s wife, told Human Rights Watch on October 5. “He also loves going to the university and teaching students. I don’t know why Sorbonne has done nothing to help my husband when he has given so much to them.”
She said the last six months have been a nightmare for her and the family: “I can’t believe that he is still in prison. Whenever I lay my head down to sleep, I wonder where Nasser is sleeping. Every time I sit down to eat, I wonder what they are feeding him.”
Along with lecturing on international trade law at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi University since 2009, bin Ghaith also worked as a legal adviser for the Emirates’ armed forces, negotiating contracts with major defense contractors in the US and Europe. The 42-year-old Emirati is a decorated former air force pilot, holds a doctorate from the University of Essex’s School of Law and a masters in international law from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
“The Paris Sorbonne University should be ashamed for not publicly urging the UAE government to stop its assault on one of the leading intellectual voices in the United Arab Emirates,” Fardeau said.
UAE and International Law
The UAE penal code allows the government to jail people simply for expressing their peaceful views, in contravention of clear international human rights guarantees of free speech. Article 176 of the penal code permits a sentence of up to five years for “whoever publicly insults the State President, its flag or national emblem.” Article 8 of the code widens the application of the provision to include the vice president, members of the Supreme Council of the Federation, and others.
The five accused are charged under article 176 for having used the online political forum UAE Hewar. None of the messages allegedly posted by the accused to the banned site do more than criticize government policy or political leaders, said four human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, that have reviewed the posts. There is no evidence that the men used or incited violence in the course of their political activities.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed under the UAE’s constitution and is well established under international human rights law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) holds that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression ... to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” While the UAE is not a party to the ICCPR, it constitutes an authoritative source and guideline reflecting international best practice. Accepted international standards only allow content-based restrictions in extremely narrow circumstances, such as cases of slander or libel against private individuals or speech that threatens national security.
Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which has been ratified by the UAE, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to impart news to others by any means. The only restrictions allowed on the practice of this right are those imposed for “respect for the rights of others, their reputation, or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals.” Article 13(2) of the Charter also requires that hearings be “public other than in exceptional cases where the interests of justice so require in a democratic society which respects freedom and human rights.”
The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides that countries should “take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action” as a result of their participation in human rights activity.
Background on Sorbonne Abu Dhabi
Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi (PSUAD) is in the capital of the United Arab Emirates. An international agreement between the French University Paris-Sorbonne, or Paris IV, and the government of Abu Dhabi to establish the university was signed on February 19, 2006. The university was established on May 30, 2006, by UAE government decree.
Paris-Sorbonne Abu Dhabi is managed by a board of six members, three appointed by Paris-Sorbonne University and three by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council. Under the agreement, the boards share a president. The agreement includes a clause giving the UAE exclusive use of the Sorbonne name in the Middle East region.