(Abu Dhabi) – Five activists jailed seven months ago for “publicly insulting” United Arab Emirates officials plan to begin a hunger strike on November 13, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The activists said the hunger strike will continue until authorities release them unconditionally and end all judicial proceedings against them.
In a joint statement on November 11, they detailed violations of their basic rights by judiciary, prosecution, and prison officials, including their prolonged detention on politically motivated charges and a patently unfair trial. The five said they were “compelled” to go on a hunger strike after languishing in prison for seven months and having “exhausted all possible means of redress.” International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have documented numerous fair trial violations and say that the case against the five is a gross violation of their right to freedom of expression.
“Every month that these men remain locked up on absurd charges of insulting UAE rulers further undermines the government’s claim that this is an open and tolerant country,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This trial is all about zero tolerance for political dissent and has nothing to do with justice or security.”
The prosecution of the five men violates guarantees of free speech under the UAE’s constitution as well as international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.
The Federal Supreme Court, which is trying the case, has said it will issue a verdict on November 27.
In their statement, the activists said they have endured a “vicious, orchestrated smear campaign” through text messages, social media, and satellite channels. They said they and their lawyers have made numerous criminal complaints to officials, including the attorney general, public prosecutors, and police officers, but that their complaints have been ignored. Authorities consistently failed to investigate threats against them, including death threats, they said.
The five also said that, “The pressure and mobilization of public opinion to ensure our conviction for a crime that we have not been proven to have committed – all of this has stifled public liberties in general, and particularly freedom of opinion and expression, in our dear country to which we pledge our exclusive allegiance.”
The activists’ statement called on the government to set up an independent fact-finding commission to investigate the circumstances of their arrests, detention, and trial.
The five activists, who were arrested in April and whose trial opened on June 14, are: Ahmed Mansoor, an engineer and blogger; Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist, university lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, and an advocate for political reform; and the online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis.
The five are charged under article 176 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to publicly insult top officials. Because the case is being prosecuted under state security procedures, the Federal Supreme Court is hearing the charges and there is no right of appeal.
The court has not allowed the defendants to review the evidence and charges against them. The court did not allow defense lawyers to cross-examine one prosecution witness and did not provide sufficient time to cross-examine others. Without explanation, the authorities closed the first four hearings to the public, journalists, international observers, and the families of the accused. On multiple occasions, the court has denied or failed to rule on motions to release the defendants on bail, even though none of the defendants are charged with a violent offense, and authorities have not suggested that they pose a flight risk.
The UAE penal code allows the government to jail people solely for peacefully expressing critical views, in contravention of international human rights guarantees for free speech. Article 176 of the penal code permits a sentence of up to five years in prison for “whoever publicly insults the State President, its flag or national emblem.” Article 8 widens the application of the provision to include the vice president, members of the Supreme Council of the Federation, and others.
The five are charged under article 176 for using the banned online political forum UAE Hewar. Human Rights Watch reviewed the messages allegedly posted by the accused, none of which do more than criticize government policy or political leaders. There is no evidence that the men used or incited violence in the course of their political activities.
Mansoor faces additional charges of inciting others to break the law, calling for an election boycott, and calling for demonstrations. In March, shortly before his arrest, he publicly supported a petition signed by more than 130 people advocating universal, direct elections for the Federal National Council (FNC), a government advisory board, and legislative powers for the council. Before his arrest he gave numerous television and other media interviews on the issue. Mansoor is a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East advisory committee.
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 guideline reflecting international standards, which allow content-based restrictions only 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 the UAE has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to impart news to others by any means. The only restrictions the charter allows 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 judicial hearings be “public other than [except] 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.