Correction: Due to an error, the English version of this press release was incomplete. Sections included in full in the Arabic version have now been attached below.

(Beirut, May 13, 2016) – UAE authorities should immediately drop all charges against an Emirati academic and a Jordanian journalist that relate to peaceful criticism of Emirati and Egyptian authorities.

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

The Emirati academic, Nasser bin Ghaith, faces charges that include “engaging in hostility against Egypt,” following online comments made before his arrest in August 2015, not 2014 as an earlier version of the news release stated. The UAE-based Jordanian journalist, Tayseer al-Najjar, informed his family that his detention since December 2015, relates to his online criticism of Israeli military actions in Gaza and the Egyptian security forces’ destruction of tunnels between Gaza and the Sinai region of Egypt.

“UAE authorities seem to believe they have the right to detain anyone who ever expressed any views, anywhere, that they disagree with,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “There is no justification for throwing a journalist, or anyone else, into prison for expressing a peaceful opinion.”

Bin Ghaith and al-Najjar both spent time in incommunicado detention after their arrests. Local sources who asked not to be named for their protection told Human Rights Watch it is likely that they were held at a state security facility in Abu Dhabi that has been the subject of numerous credible allegations of torture.

Bin Ghaith’s whereabouts remain unknown, although he appeared at the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi for court sessions on April 4 and May 2, 2016. Media reports about the May 2 session indicate that he is accused of violating various provisions of the penal code, a 2012 cybercrime law, and a 2014 counterterrorism law. Some of these charges, according to local media reports, relate to “six tweets and images ridiculing the Egyptian president and government.” UAE authorities should immediately investigate the allegations of torture that local sources said bin Ghaith made to the judge at the May 2, 2016 hearing, Human Rights Watch said. Bin Ghaith is scheduled to appear in court again on May 23.

Majida Hourani, al-Najjar’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that she has been able to speak to her husband by telephone since his transfer to Al Wathba prison in early March. She said that her husband told her he has not been formally charged. She said he had posted the social media comments that UAE authorities had questioned him about in July 2014, nearly a year before he moved to the UAE to take up employment there.

UAE authorities do not allow Human Rights Watch access to the country. UAE residents known to have spoken with rights groups are at serious risk of arbitrary detention and imprisonment. The UAE’s 2014 counterterrorism law provides for the death penalty for people whose activities are found to “undermine national unity or social peace,” neither of which are defined in the law.

“What the UAE characterizes as hostility against foreign governments is what most people consider criticism or analysis,” Stork said. “This is a prime example of the UAE practice of invoking national security to persecute peaceful critics.”

Correction: Due to an error, the English version of this press release was incomplete. Sections included in full in the Arabic version have now been attached below.

Tayseer al-Najjar 
UAE authorities have detained al-Najjar without charge since December 13, 2015, when they summoned him to a police station. Al-Najjar, a journalist for more than 15 years, had been working in the UAE since April 2015, as a culture reporter for the UAE-based newspaper Dar

His detention was only confirmed on February 10, 2016, when Jordanian media outlets reported that the Jordanian Foreign Affairs Ministry had established with UAE officials that al-Najjar was in detention. He was not able to contact his family until several days later. His wife told Human Rights Watch that he has been able to make regular phone calls since then. Al-Najjar told his wife he is not aware of the name or whereabouts of the detention center where he was held before his transfer in early March to Al Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi, where he is currently held. 

His wife told Human Rights Watch that he has not been formally charged, but that authorities have accused him of spying for Qatar and questioned him about a 2014 Facebook post that expressed support for “Gazan resistance” and was critical of the UAE, and of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, over Israeli military operations in Gaza and Egypt’s destruction of tunnels linking Gaza and the Sinai region of Egypt. Al-Najjar was living and working in Jordan when he made the comments. 

Al-Najjar told his wife that he appeared before an investigator on March 17, 2016, and again on April 17, who each time renewed his detention for one month. She said he has not seen a lawyer since his detention. The UAE’s 2003 2003 State Security Apparatus Law allows the head of the state security apparatus to detain a person for 106 days “if he has sufficient reasonable causes to make him believe” that the person is involved in, among other things, “activities that undermine the state… or jeopardize national unity,” “activities deemed harmful to the economy,” or anything that “could undermine, weaken the position of, stir animosity against or undermine trust in the State.”

Nasser bin Ghaith
Bin Ghaith faces charges that that include “engaging in hostility against Egypt” and “attempting to put UAE-Egyptian relations at risk.” Local sources said that bin Ghaith first appeared in court at a closed session at the state security chamber of the Federal Supreme Court on April 4, 2016, but it was not clear what charges he would face until a second open session on May 2. Media reports indicate that the charges relate to “six tweets and images ridiculing the Egyptian president and government.”

Security officers in civilian clothes arrested bin Ghaith in Abu Dhabi on August 18, 2015, not 2014 as an earlier version of the news release stated, four days after he posted the last of a series of tweets that directly or implicitly criticized Egyptian authorities. Bin Ghaith’s Twitter feed contains 14 comments between June 23 and August 14, relating to political events in Egypt. On August 13 and 14, he posted three comments critical of Egyptian security forces’ mass killing of demonstrators at Raba’a Square two years earlier. Article 166 of the UAE penal code provides for a maximum of 10 years in prison for anyone who commits any “hostile act” against a foreign country that could expose the UAE to the danger of war or the severance of diplomatic relations. 

Bin Ghaith also faces charges that he posted information “intended to damage the UAE” by “claiming that he was tortured and unjustly accused during a previous trial.” In 2011, bin Ghaith was one of five men convicted of “publicly insulting” UAE officials in relation to an article he allegedly wrote that mentions the UAE’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. In October 2011, Human Rights Watch published a statement bin Ghaith wrote from Al Wathba prison in which he described being kept in solitary confinement for 10 days after his arrest in April 2011.

Human Rights Watch and three other human rights organizations called bin Ghaith’s trial “fundamentally unfair.” Article 29 of the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime law provides for a maximum of 15 years in prison for the publication of material online with the “intent to make sarcasm or damage the reputation” of the State or its leaders.

Authorities also charged bin Ghaith with “inciting hatred through acts that would undermine public order,” in violation of article 198 of the UAE penal code. This charge, local media reported, relates to posting an image of a person in traditional Emirati dress praying in a Hindu temple, “with remarks ridiculing the UAE’s decision to allot land to build a Hindu temple.” Local sources attribute this charge to a tweet that bin Ghaith posted on August 17, 2015, not 2014 as an earlier version of the news release stated, the day before his arrest.

The final charge against bin Ghaith relates to his apparent association with the Emirati Ummah and Al-Islah parties, which are among organizations that the authorities classified as “designated terrorist organizations” in November 2014. The Khaleej Times reported that bin Ghaith had given lectures “that promote these groups.” Video recordings of one such presentation, available online, shows the Umma secretary-general, Hassan al-Duqqi, introducing bin Ghaith as an academic. The Khaleej Times reported that al-Duqqi, to whom it refers to as “H.H.D., a 59-year old fugitive,” faces many of the same charges as bin Ghaith. 

A May 5 Twitter statement attributed to bin Ghaith’s family rejected Ummah party claims on social media that he is the party chairman and questioned the timing of that claim, which Ummah first made on May 1, 2016, the day before bin Ghaith’s trial session and the same day as they uploaded to YouTube the presentation he gave in 2013. 

Article 21 of the UAE 2014 counterterrorism law provides for the death penalty or life in prison for anyone who organizes or manages “a terrorist organization.” The law’s broad definition of terrorist activity allows authorities to designate any act that courts deem to have antagonized the state, stirred panic, or undermined national unity as terrorism.