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(Washington, DC) – US President Barack Obama should press the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to reverse the worsening human rights situation in the country, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Obama. Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is scheduled to meet with President Obama in Washington, DC, on April 16, 2013.

Obama should raise concerns with Al Nahyan about severe violations of fair trial rights, allegations of torture, and the laws and practices that foster exploitation of the UAE’s sizable migrant population, Human Rights Watch said.

“President Obama should make sure his meeting with Al Nahyan addresses the UAE’s increasing disregard for basic human rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The US should use its leverage as a key trading partner and ally to press the UAE’s leaders to end rights violations.”

When Obama and Al Nahyan last met, on June 27, 2012, they issued a joint statement calling on governments and citizens across the Middle East to “avoid violence, advance tolerance, and protect human rights – particularly the rights of women.” However, the backdrop to the two leaders’ forthcoming meeting is the UAE’s fundamentally unfair mass trial of 94 critics of the government, the unpunished torture by its state security services, and an escalating crackdown on free speech, Human Rights Watch said.

The UAE authorities are trying the 94 peaceful critics of the government on charges that they “initiated, established, and ran an organization seeking to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and to seize power.” Information from UAE sources indicates that many of the defendants were detained at UAE State Security facilities. Human Rights Watch has documented and receives credible reports of torture from former detainees of these facilities.

The defendants include prominent human rights lawyers, judges, teachers, and student leaders, Human Rights Watch said. Many 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.

Although the UAE authorities claim that the defendants pose a national security risk, their trial appears to be part of a broader attack on the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

In March 2012, the UAE authorities closed the local offices of two foreign organizations that 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, authorities closed down the Abu Dhabi office of the RAND Corporation, a US-based research organization. The UAE authorities issued no public statements explaining the justification for any of the closures.

The government has also deported some critics of the government who had been living in the UAE. In July, the authorities deported to Thailand Ahmed abd al-Khaleq, a member of a stateless group known as Bidun, and a prominent activist for Bidun rights, who had lived most of his life in the UAE. In August, UAE authorities cancelled the residence permits for Matt Duffy, an American journalism professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, and his wife. Duffy had advocated greater press freedom in the UAE and the region.

The authorities have also not adequately investigated public death threats and two assaults against Ahmed Mansoor, another prominent human rights activist.
In November, the UAE issued a new federal decree on cybercrime. The decree provides a legal basis to prosecute people who use information technology to exercise their free speech rights, including criticizing senior officials, arguing for political reform, or organizing unlicensed demonstrations.Although the UAE claims to be a regional leader on migrant workers’ rights, it has not made meaningful progress to protect them from severe exploitation by employers, Human Rights Watch said. The UAE has not significantly reformed 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 by employers of workers’ passports, and the failure of the UAE authorities and labor-sending states to eliminate illegal recruitment fees, significantly increases the likelihood and incidence of forced labor. The UAE has not implemented any legislation to protect migrant domestic workers, most of them women, who are not covered by national labor law. A draft law from 2012 is deeply flawed.

As the US 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 labor have not been enforced.

“President Obama should break with past US soft-pedalling criticism of severe abuses in the UAE, especially when he has called publicly for other countries in the region to respect human rights,” Whitson said.

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