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(Beirut) – The United Arab Emirates’ deeply flawed new counterterrorism law will enable the courts to convict peaceful government critics as terrorists and sentence them to death.

The UAE should immediately amend the law’s overly broad definition of terrorism and ensure that it cannot be used to prosecute people solely for exercising their rights to free speech, association, or assembly, Human Rights Watch said. The UAE should also repeal all death penalty provisions, including one that makes it a terrorist offense to undermine national unity and another that criminalizes possession of material deemed to oppose fundamental principles of Islam.

“In the UAE it’s now a case of ‘you’re with us or you’re a terrorist,’” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “While the UAE proclaims to the world that it is leading the fight against extremist ideologies, it has empowered its courts to order the deaths of people they consider opponents of Islamic principles.”

The UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, issued Terrorism Law No. 7 of 2014 on August 20. The law classifies every act that it criminalizes as a terrorist offense, and opens the way to terrorism prosecutions of those who express peaceful opposition to the government, whether in writing or verbally.

On November 15, the UAE state news agency reported that the cabinet had “approved a list of designated terrorist organizations and groups in implementation of Federal Law No. 7 for 2014.” Muslim organizations that operate legally in the United States and Norway and that were included on the list have objected to being classified as terrorist groups along with such groups as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. The US and Norwegian governments also rejected the designations, which the affected organizations can appeal in UAE courts.

Article 1 broadly defines a “terrorist outcome” as, among other things, “stirring panic among a group of people” and “antagonizing the state, ”--without however requiring an intent to cause death or serious injury, or other elements to ensure that peaceful dissent is not labeled “terrorism.”

Article 14 of the new law sets the death penalty or life in prison for anyone who acts with intent “to undermine the stability, safety, unity, sovereignty, or security of the State” or “to undermine national unity or social peace.” Article 15 provides for sentences of between 3 and 15 years for anyone who “publicly declares his animosity or lack of allegiance to the State or the regime.” Article 17, read in conjunction with a proselytism provision in the penal code, increases the penalty for possession of material that opposes or vilifies the fundamental principles or teachings of Islam from two years to death.

Article 16 sets, as maximum punishment, life imprisonment for anyone who enters “diplomatic, consular premises or headquarters” with the intent of creating a “direct or indirect terrorist outcome.”

The law defines “terrorist organizations” as groups that act to create a “direct or indirect terrorist outcome” and provides for the death penalty for anyone who sets up, organizes, or runs such an organization. An individual who seeks to join or participate can receive a life sentence. The law empowers the courts to classify groups as terrorist organizations “regardless of the … place of establishment of the group or the place where it operates or exists, or the nationality of its members or places.”

Article 34 provides for a maximum sentence of 10 years for anyone who “knowingly, promotes, favors verbally or in writing, or makes appealling in any other form a terrorist organization.”

The law also allows the courts, upon request from the office of the public prosecutor, to order travel bans and surveillance on persons “deemed dangerous from a terrorism-related perspective” and to prohibit them from residing or visiting specific places, and contacting specific people. The law does not provide for an individual’s right to appeal.

On November 25, 2014, the Federal Supreme Court sentenced Osama al-Najer to three years in prison, the state news agency WAM reported. It said the Federal Supreme Court had found “the son of a man convicted of involvement with a secret organization” guilty of “damaging the reputation of UAE institutions” and “communicating with external organizations to provide misleading information about the status of those convicted in the case of the secret organization and about their living conditions in prison.”

Al-Najer’s father, Hussain, was one of 69 people, most of them members of an Emirati Islamist group, al-Islah, convicted in July 2013 of attempting to overthrow the country’s political system and sentenced to between five years and life in prison. In September 2012, Osama al-Najer was quoted in a Human Rights Watch news release that called for an investigation into credible allegations of torture at state security facilities where his father and the other detainees were being held.

In convicting the al-Islah members, the court found that two of those convicted, human rights lawyers Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed al-Mansoori, had defamed the UAE’s image, saying that they “communicated with international organizations, including Human Rights Watch” and “communicated with embassies of other countries.” Both men, who denied the charges, were sentenced to 10 years in prison after a manifestly unfair trial beset by credible allegations that many of the defendants were tortured during interrogations.

Under the new law, it appears that al-Roken, al-Mansoori, al-Najer, and many others of those convicted, could have been prosecuted for terrorism offenses and could have faced the death penalty if put on trial now for similar offenses.

There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. In 2010 the UN’s first special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, Martin Scheinin, called for terrorism to be defined as narrowly as possible, warning that “the adoption of overly broad definitions … carries the potential for deliberate misuse of the term … as well as unintended human rights abuses.” His proposed definition requires that the action cause or intend to cause death or serious bodily injury, and aim to compel certain responses by a government or international organization.

The UAE law contains no such requirements. Instead, it allows any act that courts deem to have antagonized the state, stirred panic, or undermined national unity to be designated as terrorism. Such broad discretion is even more alarming given the lack of independence of the judiciary in the UAE. In February 2014, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers described the UAE’s judicial system as being “under the de facto control of the executive branch of government.”

“The UAE claims to be a key ally in the fight against violent extremism, but it has just passed a violent and extreme law of its own,” Whitson said. “This horrendous law and its potentially drastic consequences should sting the UAE’s Western allies into raising some long overdue concerns about the country’s dismal rights record.” 

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