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(Beirut) – A new federal decree on cybercrimes in the United Arab Emirates effectively closes off the country’s only remaining forum for free speech. The decree poses a serious threat to the liberty of peaceful activists and ordinary citizens alike.

The UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, issued Federal Legal Decree No. 5/ 2012 on combating cybercrimes on November 12, 2012. The decree’s vaguely worded provisions provide a legal basis to prosecute and jail people who use information technology to, among other things, criticize senior officials, argue for political reform, or organize unlicensed demonstrations. Although some provisions are aimed at preventing the proliferation of racist or sectarian views online, the principal effect of the law is severe restrictions on the rights to free expression and free association and assembly.

“The UAE’s cybercrimes decree reflects an attempt to ban even the most tempered criticism,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The determination to police and punish on-line dissent, no matter how mild, is incompatible with the image UAE rulers are trying to promote of a progressive, tolerant nation.”

The new decree addresses information technology, which it classifies as “websites, any information network, or information technology means,” and places severe restrictions on the use of blogs and social networking sites, as well as text messages and emails. Given that it will be applied together with provisions of the criminal code and media law that criminalize alleged insults to the country’s rulers, the cybercrime law marks a significant step backward when it comes to free speech, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 28 provides for imprisonment and a fine of up to 1 million dirhams (US$272,000) for anyone who uses information technology “with the intent of inciting to actions, or publishing or disseminating any information, news, caricatures, or other images liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on the public order.”

Article 29 provides the same penalties for anyone using information technology “with the intent of deriding or harming the reputation, stature, or status of the state, any of its institutions, its president or vice president, the rulers of the emirates, their crown princes or their deputies, the state flag, national safety, its motto, its national anthem, or its symbols.”

Article 30 provides a sentence of up to life in prison for anyone using such means “to advocate the overthrow, change, or usurpation of the system of governance in the state, or obstruct provisions of the constitution or existing law, or oppose the fundamental principles on which the system of governance is based.” It provides for the same sentence for anyone who incites or facilitates these acts.

By enabling the authorities to imprison anyone who makes any critical comment about the country or its rulers, the new decree is at odds with international free speech standards, Human Rights Watch said. Those standards require public officials to tolerate greater criticism than ordinary citizens.

The decree also potentially violates the rights to peaceful assembly and free association. Article 26 provides for a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of 1 million dirhams (US$272,000) for anyone using information technology in any of the activities associated with an “unlawful” group. This includes “intent to facilitate contact between its leaders or members, attract members, promote or applaud its ideas, fund its activities, or provide active aid to it.”

Article 32 authorizes imprisonment or a fine of 500,000 dirhams (US$136,000) for anyone using information technology to “plan, organize, promote, or advocate demonstrations, marches, and the like without a permit from the competent authorities.”

The decree follows the detention without charge of 63 peaceful dissidents in recent months. The government also has forced UAE civil society organizations and local offices of foreign pro-democracy groups to close. The day UAE authorities issued the cybercrimes decree, the families of 63 detainees gathered at the Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi to protest the unlawful detention of their loved ones. Under the new cybercrimes law anyone using information technology to organize a similar peaceful protest risks five years in jail.

A particularly worrying aspect of the new cybercrimes law is article 38, which will prohibit Emiratis from providing information to independent journalists and human rights organizations. Article 38 provides prison terms for anyone using information technology “who provides to any organizations, institutions, agencies, or any other entities incorrect, inaccurate, or misleading information liable to harm state interests or damage its reputation, stature, or status.”

In the aftermath of the European Parliament’s October 26 resolutionon the UAE’s deteriorating human rights situation, the authorities sought to discredit the information provided to members of the European parliament by independent rights organizations and defenders. This provision will enable the authorities to sanction people it holds responsible for unfavorable media articles or official reports, a threat to Emiratis who speak with journalists or human rights researchers.

Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the University of Toronto, recently reported that unknown parties hacked the computer of Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights defender, using what industry experts call “legal intercept tools.” Citizen Lab said they had traced the malware back to a physical address in the UAE, registered as the corporate headquarters of the Royal Group, whose chairman belongs to the ruling Al Nahyan family.

The UAE authorities should take immediate steps to bring the cybercrime law into line with international and regional standards on free speech, Human Rights Watch said. The UAE has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 19 of which outlines the right to freedom of opinion and expression. But it is a state party to the Arab Charter on Human Rights. Article 32 of the Arab Charter ensures the right to information, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, and article 24 guarantees the right to freedom of political activity, the right to form and join associations, and the right to freedom of assembly and association.

“The UAE’s attitude toward free speech is regressing almost as quickly as the technology that facilitates it is advancing,” Stork said. “The new cybercrime law is the act of a government out of step and out of touch with international norms.”

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