(Beirut) – United Arab Emirates authorities in 2015 arbitrarily detained and in some cases forcibly disappeared people who criticized official policies, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016. There were credible allegations that security forces tortured people held in pretrial detention.

A ministerial decree that took effect in January 2016 could help protect low-paid migrant workers from deceptive recruitment practices that can contribute to forced labor, but authorities denied access to the country to scholars and activists who had criticized the UAE’s treatment of migrant workers. The UAE also passed an anti-discrimination law with broadly worded provisions that could further jeopardize free speech. The law itself is discriminatory in that it excludes protection against discrimination based on gender and sexuality.

“The most dangerous things an Emirati can do these days are to criticize the government or express the slightest degree of sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “You do so at risk of not seeing your family again and being subjected to abuses you never thought possible.”

Nasser bin Ghaith at his home in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on November 30, 2011. © REUTERS/Nikhil Monteiro

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

Three Emirati sisters – Asma, Mariam, and Al Yazzyah al-Suweidi – spent three months in incommunicado detention after they posted comments criticizing the unlawful imprisonment of Emirati dissidents, including their brother, Dr. Issa al-Suweidi. In August, 13 security officers arrested an Emirati academic, Nasser bin Ghaith, after he used social media to criticize the Egyptian security forces’ mass killing in Rab’a Square in Cairo in August 2013 of demonstrators protesting the ouster of Mohamad Morsy from the presidency. Bin Ghaith’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Six Libyan nationals remained in detention without charge more than a year after their arrest in August 2014. Individuals arrested at the same time but subsequently released alleged that authorities tortured them to secure confessions and said they heard other detainees being tortured. The Libyans said their interrogators asked them about supposed links to the Muslim Brotherhood – which the UAE has designated a terrorist organization – and described being subjected to beatings, forced standing, and threats of rape, electrocution, and death.

Federal Decree Law No. 2 of 2015 on anti-discrimination and anti-hate, enacted in July, 2015, contains numerous broadly worded provisions that further jeopardize free speech. The law provides for a minimum of five years in jail for anyone who commits “an act that may instigate any form of discrimination, using any forms of expression or any means.” Article 3 says that freedom of expression cannot be invoked as a defense in cases relating to acts or statements “that may incite the contempt of religions of offend them.”