(Beirut) – United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities should immediately bring a victim of enforced disappearance, Ahmed al-Suweidi, before judicial authorities and open a thorough and impartial investigation into credible allegations of torture at State Security facilities. Human Rights Watch was joined in its statement by Alkarama (Dignity), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), and Index on Censorship.
On September 10, 2012, Human Rights Watch wrote to President Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to say that the UAE’s accession to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on July 19 was a positive step. But Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the alleged torture in UAE custody of two Syrian nationals, Abdulelah al-Jadani and Musab Khalil Abood.
“The allegations of torture and the enforced disappearance of Ahmed al-Suweidi are matters of grave concern and exhibit increasingly brutal tactics by the UAE’s State Security apparatus,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The UAE’s allies in the West should not remain silent in the face of such serious international crimes.”
Al-Suweidi, whose situation recently came to light, is one of 60 civil society activists and human rights defenders whom UAE authorities are holding without charge following their peaceful calls for political reform. They include two prominent lawyers, Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed al-Mansoori. The condition of the other detainees is also a cause of concern after reports from people who saw them at a September 6 hearing to extend the detention of six of them, the groups said.
Al-Suweidi was arrested on March 26 and taken to Al-Shahama detention center. On April 26 the authorities at Al-Shahama claimed to have transferred him to Al-Sader jail, but officials at Al-Sader claimed to have no knowledge of his whereabouts when his brother attempted to visit him shortly after. The UAE authorities have not denied he is still in detention, but they have refused to divulge his location. Al-Suweidi’s enforced disappearance is all the more alarming in light of the recent allegations of torture at a UAE State Security facility, the groups said.
Al-Suweidi holds a PhD from the University of Southern California and worked in the finance department of the Abu Dhabi government for 17 years until he retired in 2007. He is also a political activist and it was this activism that led authorities to strip him and six other Emiratis of their citizenship in May 2011. The “UAE 7,” as they became known, were among the first arrested in the current crackdown on free expression. On March 26, at a service station between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, six unmarked cars surrounded the vehicle in which al-Suweidi and a former judge, Ahmed al-Za’abi, were traveling. Men in civilian clothes who did not reveal their identity took them away. Al-Suweidi was held in a different wing of the detention center to the others, and his first and last contact with his family was a brief phone call on August 27, five months after his arrest.
Under international law, a state violates the prohibition against enforced disappearance when its agents take a person into custody and then either denies it is detaining the person, or fails to disclose the person’s whereabouts. “Disappeared” people are at high risk of torture.
Al-Jadani, one of the Syrians who alleged he was tortured in UAE custody, had been working in the UAE since February 2008 in a small road haulage business. He told Human Rights Watch after he was released from custody that on the morning of May 8, 2011, four unmarked vehicles with about 15 men in civilian clothes stopped his truck on the E311 Emirates Road as he was transporting construction materials from Ras Al Khaimah to Jebel Ali.
He said that the men forced him out of his truck and into one of their vehicles, confiscated his wallet and passport, and handcuffed and blindfolded him. They drove al-Jadani to his lodgings in Sharjah, where they searched his belongings and confiscated his laptop. They then drove him to a gated detention center, where security guards placed him in a windowless 3 by 2 meter cell equipped with a surveillance camera. The officers, who spoke with Gulf accents, identified the installation as a State Security facility.
Every afternoon for the next 18 days, al-Jadani alleged, they beat and whipped him, held him in painful stress positions, and hung him from the wall by his arms and legs. He was also subjected to severe sleep deprivation and extreme cold in his cell. His interrogation focused on his alleged connections with people involved in the Syrian uprising, in particular a fellow detainee, Musab Khalil Abood, another Syrian national who was a close acquaintance. Emirati officials had arrested Abood on May 6 as he attempted to return to Syria for his father’s funeral.
Al-Jadani’s interrogators demanded information about what they claimed was Abood’s participation in political violence in Syria. Later interrogation sessions focused on what interrogators alleged were al-Jadani and Abood’s links with violent Islamist groups such as al Qaeda.
Al-Jadani and Abood were held in solitary confinement in State Security for three months, with no access to legal assistance or contact with their families. After this time they were transferred to Al Wathba jail in Abu Dhabi, where Abood told al-Jadani and other inmates that he had also been subjected to regular torture during his time in solitary confinement at a State Security facility. An Emirati court freed al-Jadani in January, but convicted Abood on terrorism charges and sentenced him to three years in jail. Both men maintain that they are innocent of any involvement in terrorist activities. Abood has been on hunger strike since June 27.
UAE authorities should undertake independent and timely criminal investigations into these credible allegations of torture and enforced disappearance, leading to the identification and prosecution of those responsible, the groups said.
The nexus between torture and enforced disappearance is well established in international law. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has found that prolonged isolation and deprivation of communication is in itself a form of cruel and inhuman treatment. The European Court of Human Rights has declared that the uncertainty, doubt, and apprehension suffered by the families of disappeared people over a prolonged and continuing period of time is a violation of the absolute and non-derogable prohibition of torture.
On August 30, the UN Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances and the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, which reviews state compliance with the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, issued a joint statement to mark the second UN International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. “Enforced disappearance is not only a crime,” the statement said. “It is an act that negates the very essence of humanity and is contrary to the deepest values of any society.”
Since April 26, Ahmed Suwaidi’s wife and family have had no information about where he is being detained, the conditions in which he is being kept, or his treatment. The other 57 detainees have been permitted intermittent, monitored phone calls with their families, but their mental and physical well-being is also a matter of concern.
On September 6, six of the detainees were presented, one by one, before a judge at the Supreme Court as officials sought to extend their detention. An Emirati lawyer, Abdulhameed al-Kuamaiti, was present and able to talk to some of the detainees. Osama al-Najer, the son of one of the detainees, was not inside the room but was able to see the detainees as they were brought to the judge. They appeared disheveled, disoriented, and distressed.
Two of the detainees, Salem al-Shehi and Eisa al-Sari, appeared barely able to walk and al-Shehi appeared to be unable to follow the proceedings. Rashid al-Shamsi, another detainee, told the judge that he was weak because he had been given sleeping pills. The judge refused to explain the legal basis for the men’s detention to al-Kumaiti.
The UAE authorities should release all 60 detainees immediately or charge them with a recognizable criminal offense, the groups said. All of those alleging abuse should receive independent forensic medical exams. Any evidence obtained by torture should be excluded from any trial.
Ahmed al-Suweidi should be taken to a judge and should either be freed or charged with a crime and prosecuted in impartial and fair proceedings. He should be given access to his family and legal representatives and provided with medical assistance if it is required.
“The criminals in this affair are those responsible for the disappearance of Ahmed al-Suweidi, not the dozens of brave Emiratis standing up for their right to free expression,” said Rachid Mesli, director of Alkarama’s legal department.