(Dubai) – The United Arab Emirates during 2011 muzzled the right of its citizens to express themselves and to form independent associations, Human Rights Watch said today in issuing its World Report 2012 at a news conference in Dubai.
UAE authorities harassed, arrested, and jailed activists, and disbanded the elected boards of two of the country’s most prominent civil society organizations.
“In the year of the Arab Spring, the UAE headed in the opposite direction by criminally prosecuting Emiratis who dared to criticize the government,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
In the 676-page World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.
In the UAE, in early April authorities arrested five activists, known as the “UAE 5,” after they allegedly posted statements on the internet forum UAE Hewar, which authorities have banned. None of the messages on UAEHewarthat have been attributed to the UAE 5 went beyond peaceful criticism of government policy or political leaders, said Human Rights Watch and other rights groups that reviewed the posts.
The state charged the five men in early June under articles 176 and 8 of the UAE penal code, which punish public “insults” of the country’s top officials. During their trial, the Federal Supreme Court patently violated the activists’ fair trial rights and refused to grant them pretrial release. After their conviction on November 27 the UAE’s president commuted their prison sentences. While the men were freed, their passports have yet to be returned.
“To protect the right of Emiratis to express themselves, authorities need to expunge from the penal code provisions that imprison people for insulting government officials,” Whitson said. “Such laws have no place in the 21st century, and no place in the UAE.”
UAE authorities further clamped down on freedom of expression by disbanding the elected boards of the Jurists Association and the Teachers’ Association after they and two other nongovernmental organizations co-signed a public appeal in April calling for greater democracy in the country. The decrees replaced elected board members with state appointees and said that the associations had violated the 2008 Law on Associations, which prohibits organizations and their members from interfering “in politics or in matters that impair state security and its ruling regime.”
Al-Islah, an Islamist group, issued a statement in December saying the authorities had confiscated the citizenship documents of seven of its members, some of whom had signed a petition in March seeking political reforms. UAE authorities later acknowledged that a presidential order had stripped six of the men of their citizenship for “acts posing a threat to the state's security and safety.” The authorities have not publicly commented on the seventh case.
One of the men told Human Rights Watch that authorities had not shown him the presidential order or told him in detail the accusations against him. He has had to surrender his national identity card and health insurance card. Since he no longer has any citizenship, immigration authorities have instructed him to obtain an immigration sponsor or face possible imprisonment.
Migrant workers in the UAE experienced some improvements in their conditions, particularly on Saadiyat Island, the site of a major development and construction project. The government issued new labor regulations in January to protect workers from unscrupulous recruiters who charge them illegal fees and have them sign false contracts.
In March New York University announced that it would hire the United Kingdom construction firm Mott MacDonald to monitor labor conditions on its Abu Dhabi campuses. In May the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), a government developer in Abu Dhabi, announced its appointment of the international auditing firm PwC to monitor workers’ conditions on Saadiyat Island. Both firms will publish yearly reports on their findings. However, neither NYU nor TDIC have released comprehensive information about the terms of reference and monitoring methodology that their monitoring firms would use.
In March TDIC also amended its Employment Practices Policy to require contractors to reimburse their employees for any recruitment costs or fees associated with their employment on Saadiyat Island. Many foreign women employed as domestic workers in the UAE suffer from unpaid wages, food deprivation, long working hours, forced confinement, and physical or sexual abuse. In June the UAE voted to adopt theInternational Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The convention requires the UAE government to provide domestic workers with labor protections equivalent to those of other workers, including those regulating working hours and overtime compensation. The new standards also oblige the UAE government to protect domestic workers from violence and abuse, and to ensure effective monitoring and enforcement.