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(Beirut) – A United Arab Emirates court sentenced a Jordanian journalist on March 15, 2017, to prison and a large fine for “insulting the state’s symbols,” Human Rights Watch said today. The sentence against Tayseer al-Najjar was related to Facebook posts in which he criticized Egypt, Israel, and Gulf countries.

Tayseer al-Najjar. © Private

UAE authorities held al-Najjar without access to a lawyer for more than a year before bringing him to trial in January. WAM, the UAE’s official news agency, reported that the Abu Dhabi Federal Appeals Court convicted al-Najjar under article 29 of the country’s cybercrime law, sentencing him to three years in prison and a fine of 500,000 UAE Dirhams (US$136,000).

“Jailing a journalist on spurious charges does far more to ‘insult’ the UAE and its symbols than anything Tayseer al-Najjar ever wrote,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The UAE’s president should immediately vacate this senseless sentence and allow al-Najjar to return to his wife and family in Jordan.”

On December 3, 2015, UAE authorities at Abu Dhabi airport prevented al-Najjar from boarding a flight to Jordan to visit his wife and children, al-Najjar’s wife, Majida Hourani, told Human Rights Watch. On December 13, the UAE authorities summoned al-Najjar to a police station in Abu Dhabi and detained him.

Al-Najjar’s wife said he had been a journalist for more than 15 years, and had been working in the UAE since April 2015, when he became a culture reporter for the UAE-based newspaper Dar.

Hourani said that during al-Najjar’s detention, authorities questioned him about comments he made on Facebook during Israeli military operations in Gaza in 2014, before he had moved to the UAE. He expressed support for “Gazan resistance” and criticized the UAE and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt. She said that investigators also questioned him over two 2012 Facebook posts in which he apparently criticized the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, but al-Najjar denied writing those comments. The comments were the evidence against al-Najjar at his trial, she said.

The Jordan Press Association (JPA), which appointed al-Najjar’s lawyer, said that it would work to appeal the verdict. Tariq Momani, the head of the group, told the AFP that “[the JPA] truly believed he would be found innocent.”

Article 29 of the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime law provides for prison sentences of between three and 15 years for publishing information online with the “intent to make sarcasm or damage the reputation, prestige or stature of the State or any of its institutions.”

The UAE has ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which in article 32 protects the right to freedom of expression and in article 13 protects the right to a fair trial.

“There’s no chance at a fair trial when vague charges are designed specifically to limit free speech and harshly punish peaceful criticism,” Stork said.

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