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(Beirut) – Emirati authorities should retract their decision to cancel the residency permits of dozens of Syrians who took part in a peaceful protest against the Syrian government in Dubai, Human Rights Watch said today.

In the weeks following the demonstration, on February 10, 2012, United Arab Emirates (UAE) security officials called in for questioning hundreds of Syrian nationals suspected of attending the unlicensed demonstration. The UAE government later revoked the residency permits of about 50 of them, some of the protesters and Syrian community leaders in the UAE told Human Rights Watch.

“The UAE calls on Syrian President Assad to respect the right of peaceful protesters, yet it is expelling Syrians from its country for exercising this basic right,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These expulsions show that Emirati authorities are intolerant of any protest or expression of dissent on UAE soil even if it is not geared toward them.”

Ten Syrian protesters, family members, and community leaders separately told Human Rights Watch that UAE security officers called Syrians in for questioning in the days after the February 10 demonstration and then pressured them to sign a pledge to refrain from future protests.

In subsequent days, Syrian protesters said that immigration officials took the passports of some of the participants and cancelled their residency permits, giving them less than 10 days to leave the country. The UAE authorities did not accuse the protesters of any act of violence. At least 10 of the protesters, some with family members in the UAE, had to leave the country, with some of them going to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Human Rights Watch does not have any information indicating that anyone was sent back to Syria.

At the February 10 demonstrations, about 2,000 protesters gathered peacefully for two hours outside the Syrian consulate in Dubai and later dispersed without incident after security forces told them to leave. Witnesses who attended said there were no arrests or altercations.

The UAE government has shown little tolerance for public demonstrations or strikes, regardless of whether they are peaceful, Human Rights Watch said. UAE law requires a government permit for any organized public gathering. Such permits are rarely issued, though, and none was obtained for the February 10 protest.

The protesters summoned by the police told Human Rights Watch similar and consistent accounts of the interrogations. The protesters received phone calls from security officials, who tracked some of them down through license plates on cars near the protest site. After calling them in for questioning, police asked the participants how they learned about the protest, what political organizations they were involved in, why they participated in an illegal demonstration, and whether they would sign a pledge not to participate in future protests.

“I stayed at the police station for seven hours, from 6 p.m. until 12:30 a.m.,” one of those questioned told Human Rights Watch. “I wrote down on a piece of paper ‘I will not participate in protests that I was invited to. I should always report about any gathering taking place to the security forces.’ I signed the pledge.”

After the protesters signed the pledges, the UAE authorities released them. The people who had been questioned said that they did not participate in any further protests. However, days later, immigration officers summoned about 50 protesters, took their passports, and cancelled their residency permits, without explanation. The immigration officers told many of the protesters that they would have to leave the country in 10 days, despite the fact that most had lived in the UAE for years without any incident.

“On February 16, I received another call,” one of the protesters said. “They asked me to come to the security branch with my passport and a sponsor. My cousin went with me. They told me directly that I have to leave the country for a year because I violated the hosting country’s laws and regulations. I was shocked. They gave me 10 days to finish cancelling my residency and my work permit. My cousin had to give them his passport as collateral so that I could take mine and finish the paperwork.”

Two Syrians who left for Egypt this week after UAE immigration authorities cancelled their residency permits told Human Rights Watch that they have no connection to Egypt and will be unable to pay for necessities.

“What are we supposed to do in Egypt?” said one, who arrived to Egypt on February 29 from Al Ain in the UAE. “How can we work? How can we pay our expenses? I can survive maybe one or two months but then what?”

Another Syrian protester told Human Rights Watch that after authorities cancelled his residency permit, he had to leave his entire family behind and take a one-way bus out of the country. “I was born in the UAE and my father worked there even before I was born,” he said. “I live with my family and brother. We both have respectable jobs and we never violated any law. It is very hard on me and my family that I have to leave, especially since I can’t go back to Syria. I am afraid if I speak publicly about my case my parents will be deported as well even though they were not at the protest.”

Other Syrian nationals in the UAE told Human Rights Watch that they are not speaking out about their expulsion because they are afraid they will be deported to Syria. Syrian protesters forced out of the UAE face a significant risk to their personal security if they return to Syria, Human Rights Watch said. The protesters also are at risk of persecution on return to Syria if Syrian authorities find out they protested against the regime or the circumstances of their expulsion.

On February 28, the UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, Lynn Pascoe, told the UN Security Council that Syrian forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began. Syrian forces continue to shell residential neighborhoods in the city of Homs indiscriminately. Since February 3, Syrian army shelling of the city has killed at least 697 civilians, according to Syrian monitoring groups, and wounded hundreds of others, including women and children.

Under international law, governments have the right to regulate the presence of foreigners within their borders. However, the process of deportation is subject to certain constraints. The Arab Charter for Human Rights, ratified by the UAE, obliges governments to deport foreigners only in accordance with the law and to give deportees the opportunity to appeal their deportation order. It also requires the UAE to “ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its Jurisdiction the right to enjoy all the rights and freedoms [in the Charter], without any distinction on grounds of … national origin”.

“These Syrians cannot go to Syria, and it is cruel for the UAE authorities to be kicking them out in this great time of need,” Whitson said.

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