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(Beirut) – United Arab Emirates authorities harassed and prosecuted critics of the government during 2016 and significantly enhanced their electronic surveillance capacity in their efforts to suppress free expression, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017.

Iranian workers rest on a commercial ship at Dubai Creek, January 17, 2016.  © 2016 Ashraf Mohammad/Reuters

The government deployed expensive surveillance software to target a leading human rights activist and put an Emirati academic on trial on charges that related to his critical comments on social media. Further evidence emerged of the mistreatment of foreign nationals in detention.

“The UAE authorities aggressively pursue anyone who doesn’t toe the party line, and cyberspace has become their chosen hunting ground for critics and dissidents,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “In addition to the abuses relating to free expression, the UAE’s treatment of detainees gives cause for great concern.”

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

A June 2016 report from Citizen Lab, a research institute at the University of Toronto that focuses on internet security and human rights, identified a series of digital campaigns against UAE dissidents, dating back to 2012. Citizen Lab described the operator of these campaigns as “a sophisticated threat actor,” and said that it was implausible that a government figure was not behind the campaign. The research identified several pieces of information suggesting a connection between the operator and the UAE government.

The trial of the academic Nasser bin-Ghaith began at the Federal Supreme Court in April. He is accused of violating various provisions of the penal code, a 2012 cybercrime law, and a 2014 counterterrorism law. Some of the charges relate to “six tweets and images ridiculing the Egyptian president and government.” His trial is ongoing.

In March 2016, a Dubai court acquitted a British businessman, David Haigh, of charges brought under the UAE’s cybercrime laws. Haigh said after his release that Dubai police had punched and tasered him in an unsuccessful effort to make him confess to accusations of fraud. Haigh said that he regularly witnessed prison officers beating inmates during his two years of incarceration.

The UAE authorities should end their suppression of free expression, release all those convicted of offenses related to their right to free speech, and ensure that all detainees are treated humanely and given a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.

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