(Beirut) – Authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) should immediately stop any current deportation proceedings against a UAE blogger and activist, and free him from immigration-related detention, Human Rights Watch said today. The current deportation proceedings appear aimed at sending him to the Comoros Islands, a country he has never been to, since he was pressured by UAE authorities into applying for citizenship there. No reason has been given to him for his detention and likely deportation, nor any attempt made to consider the effect on his family life.
Authorities detained Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq on May 22, 2012, after summoning him to the immigration department of the Interior Ministry in the Ajman emirate, local activists told Human Rights Watch. Abd al-Khaleq, 35, is well known for his activist and blogging campaigns for the rights of stateless residents known as Bidun (“without,” referring to their statelessness).
“Instead of providing a remedy for the plight of Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq and thousands of other stateless residents, UAE authorities pressured him to acquire foreign naturalization in order to ship him away,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “UAE authorities should immediately halt any deportation proceedings against him and release him unconditionally.”
Abd al-Khaleq, himself a stateless Bidun-born and lifelong resident of the UAE, is one of a group of activists known as the “UAE 5” who had been jailed from April to November 2011 for peacefully advocating democratic reforms. His latest arrest came the day after he received notification that his application for Comoros citizenship had been approved. Local activists said he has no connection to the Comoros and has never visited the islands, but that he had applied for Comoros citizenship under pressure from UAE authorities, who told him that obtaining a nationality was a necessary step in regularizing his residency status in the UAE. Abd al-Khaleq supports his parents and seven sisters, all of whom were born in the UAE and have never left the country.
On May 24, the local activists said, Abd al-Khaleq phoned family members from al-Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi and informed them that Interior Ministry authorities were transferring him to al-Sadr prison, from which they would soon deport him to the Comoros Islands. UAE authorities have provided no information on his whereabouts or the reason for his arrest and possible deportation.
Abd al-Khaleq’s blog, Emaraty Bedoon, hosts videos and statements highlighting the plight of stateless residents. Due to their stateless status, the Bidun, who according to Refugees International number between 10,000 and 100,000 in the UAE, face severe obstacles in many areas such as access to healthcare and education, and many live in poverty. Many of the Bidun population in the UAE trace their origins to nomadic tribes that previously moved freely around the gulf region or later immigrants living in the UAE who failed to register for nationality when the country was formed in 1971.
Immigration department officials had contacted Abd al-Khaleq and members of his family in early 2012 and pressured them to acquire Comoros nationality as a first step, they said, to stabilizing their residency situation in the UAE. Over the past two years, other Bidun have told Human Rights Watch of similar pressure from UAE authorities to apply for Comoros citizenship. The family received notice on May 21 that their application for Comoros citizenship had been approved, local activists said.
The Paris-based daily Le Monde and the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network reported in 2009 that the UAE government paid US$200 million to the government of the Comoros, at that time equal to 40 percent of the islands’ GDP, to offer citizenship to stateless residents in the UAE. According to Al Jazeera, Comoros officials speculated that those who received it might “never step foot in the islands.” UAE officials have not confirmed the existence of a bilateral arrangement.
UAE activists told Human Rights Watch that Interior Ministry officials have stepped up pressure on stateless residents in recent months to apply for Comoros citizenship, telling them that their window to apply would soon close, which would jeopardize their chances of establishing legal residency in the UAE. Human Rights Watch has seen a recent photo of a note on the front door of the Comoros embassy in Abu Dhabi stating that the embassy will stop receiving applications for citizenship on June 1.
The activists known as the “UAE 5” were detained in April 2011, after they allegedly posted statements on UAE Hewar, an internet forum that criticized UAE government policy and leaders.
UAE authorities charged them in early June under articles 176 and 8 of the UAE Penal Code, which criminalize “public insults” of the country’s top officials. They were detained throughout a seven-month pretrial and trial process. The Federal Supreme Court convicted them on November 27 and sentenced them to between two and three years in prison. Shortly afterward, Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE president, commuted the sentences of all five and they were released. Abd al-Khaleq is the only stateless member of the UAE 5.
Abd al-Khaleq’s latest detention follows a series of arrests of dissidents in the UAE. Over the past nine weeks, authorities detained without charge 12 members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah), a non-violent political association advocating greater adherence to Islamic precepts. One of the lawyers for the detained men told Human Rights Watch that the authorities said they arrested six of the men for refusing to sign a pledge to seek another nationality after the government claimed to have revoked their citizenship.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed under article 30 of the UAE's constitution and under international human rights law. Article 19 of 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 imminent violence.
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 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 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.
International law protects the right of everyone to family life. Article 33 of the Arab Charter for Human Rights provides that “The State and society shall ensure the protection of the family, the strengthening of family ties, [and] the protection of its members…” The UN Human Rights Committee has set out in its General Comment 19 that, in addition to the obligation on states to protect the family, “the right to found a family implies ... the possibility to ... live together.... Similarly, the possibility to live together implies the adoption of appropriate measures ... to ensure the unity or reunification of families, particularly when their members are separated for political, economic or similar reasons.” Therefore deporting someone away from their family, when this is to a country he or she has never visited, and where it would not be reasonable for his family to move to, would violate the right to a family life.
“UAE authorities are now using deportations and the revocation of citizenship status as a way to silence dissent in the UAE,” Whitson said. “They should end this shameful practice and respect the rights of Emiratis to freedom of association and expression.”