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Letter to President Barack Obama on Upcoming Meeting with UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan

President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, D.C.


Dear Mr. President,

I write to raise serious ongoing human rights concerns that we urge you to raise when you meet with Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, during his forthcoming visit to the United States.

The joint statement issued after your last meeting with Al Nahyan on June 27, 2012 called on governments and citizens across the Middle East to “avoid violence, advance tolerance, and protect human rights-particularly the rights of women.” However, on July 17 the UAE authorities intensified their crackdown on domestic dissent and freedom of expression, and since then the human rights climate in the UAE has worsened significantly.

Al Nahyan’s visit will coincide with the ongoing mass trial of 94 peaceful critics of the government on charges that they “launched, established, and ran an organization seeking to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and to seize power.” Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have found the trial to be fundamentally unfair. Many of the political detainees were held incommunicado for over six months of pre-trial detention. Based on information from local sources in the UAE, it is probable that many detainees were detained at UAE State Security facilities, where Human Rights Watch has documented and continues to receive credible reports of torture. Although the UAE authorities claim that the defendants pose a national security risk, the evidence indicates their trial is part of a broader attack on freedom of expression. In addition to violating the civil and political rights of its citizens, UAE authorities continue to deny millions of migrant workers their most basic human rights, with abuses against female domestic workers providing acute cause for concern.

I urge you to press Al Nahyan to ensure the UAE authorities cease arbitrary detentions, respect the rights to fair trial, freedom of expression and opinion, launch a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into allegations of torture, and reform its anti-trafficking laws to provide for the prosecution of trafficking for forced labor.

Arbitrary Detention, Torture and Violation of the Right to Fair Trial

The mass trial of 94 peaceful political dissidents began on March 4, 2013, and is expected to conclude in late April or early May. Authorities had held 64 detainees at undisclosed locations for periods of up to a year and denied them legal assistance until late February 2013. Authorities harassed and intimidated lawyers who sought to offer legal representation to the detainees and did not provide defense lawyers with the documents setting out the charges against them, or the evidence on which these charges are based, until the start of the trial, severely compromising their ability to mount an effective defense.

The detainees include the prominent human rights lawyers Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed al-Mansoori, judge Mohammed Saeed al-Abdouli, university professor Dr. Hadef al-Owais, as well as other judges, lawyers, teachers, and student leaders. Many of the detainees are members of a local group, the Reform and Social Guidance Association (Al-Islah), which advocates greater adherence to Islamic precepts. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any evidence that the group, which has engaged in peaceful political debate in the UAE for many years, has advocated or participated in violence.

The detainees claimed in court that they had been tortured in detention and sources close to their families told Human Rights Watch that they have been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, 24-hour bright fluorescent lighting, inadequate heating, forced wearing of hoods whenever they were outside their cells – including while being escorted to the bathroom or interrogation rooms – and persistent insults from prison guards. The authorities have taken no steps to investigate these allegations. In September 2012, Human Rights Watch documented credible allegations of similar torture at state security facilities in the UAE.

UAE authorities compounded these serious pre-trial violations of due process by arbitrarily denying family members, international observers, and the international media access to the trial on spurious procedural grounds. On April 8, 2013, a court in Abu Dhabi jailed the son of one of the 94 defendants for 10 months for posting information about the trial on social media, claiming that he published in bad faith false details of a public trial session. 

Repression of Freedom of Expression

In late March 2012, the UAE authorities closed the local offices of two international organizations which promote the exchange of ideas and political debate, the National Democratic Institute, a body linked to the Democratic Party in the United States, and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, linked to Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. In December 2012, authorities closed down the Abu Dhabi office of the RAND Corporation, a U.S. based think-tank. The UAE authorities issued no public statements explaining the justification for any of the closures.

The government has also prevented its critics from residing in the UAE. In July 2012 the authorities deported Ahmed abd al-Khaleq, a stateless Bidun, to Thailand. Abd al-Khaleq was a prominent activist for the rights of the Bidun and a critic of the government.

In August 2012, UAE authorities cancelled the residence permits for Matt Duffy, an American journalism professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, who had advocated greater press freedom in the UAE and the region, as well as his wife.

The authorities have failed to adequately investigate public death threats, a public smear campaign, and two premeditated assaults against Ahmed Mansoor, another prominent human rights activist.

In November, the UAE passed a new federal decree on cybercrime that provides 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.

Migrant Workers’ Rights and Trafficking in Persons

Although the UAE claims to be a regional leader on the issue of migrant workers’ rights, it has not made meaningful progress to protect them from severe exploitation by employers. The UAE has taken no meaningful steps to reform the shortcomings in the legal and regulatory framework that is responsible for the serious exploitation of migrant workers, in a country where 85 percent of the population are foreign nationals. The combination of a highly exploitative system of sponsorship-based employment, the illegal but customary confiscation of workers’ passports, and the failure of the UAE authorities and labor-sending states to tackle the issue of illegal recruitment fees significantly increases the likelihood and incidence of forced labour.

As the U.S. State Department noted in its 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, the UAE government has failed to address trafficking for labor exploitation and prohibitions against contributory factors to forced labour remain unenforced. The UAE’s anti-trafficking law– Federal Law 51 – fails to include trafficking for labor exploitation, including domestic servitude. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions for government complicity in trafficking offences in 2012. In addition, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons reported in April 2012, “there is no national framework in the UAE for victim compensation and victim assistance does not go beyond the services and minimal financial aid provided by the non-governmental shelters to the victims.” This is of particular concern in view of the serious and well-documented mistreatment of the UAE’s domestic workers, an almost exclusively female and highly vulnerable subset of the general migrant worker population.

The UAE has not experienced the same level of civil unrest as some of its neighbors in the Gulf region, but its suppression of peaceful criticism, its severe violations of due process and fair trial rights, and its ongoing failure to remedy laws and practices that foster the exploitation of its sizable migrant population should be of concern to its international allies. I therefore urge you to press Al Nayhan to urgently remedy these gross violations.


Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch


Philip Gordon
Special Assistant to the President
White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region
National Security Council

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