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Abu Dhabi Investment Authority building, modern tall buildings on the Corniche seafront, Abu Dhabi, UAE. © 2012 Minden Pictures/AP Images

(Beirut) – Emirati authorities are mistreating and denying adequate medical care to a terminally ill 42-year-old Emirati woman and denying her regular contact with her family, Human Rights Watch said today. Family members who have seen and spoken to her say that the authorities have her hands and feet shackled to her hospital bed at all times.

The woman, Alia Abdel Nour, was convicted of terrorism in 2017 in a case marred by due process violations. After her arrest in 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hospital doctors have stated that she has refused treatment. Her family denies that and says she was forced to sign a document stating that she was refusing chemotherapy. Abdel Nour has also said that security forces have subjected her to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Given her current condition, Emirati authorities should release her from detention.

“The cruel and senseless suffering Abdel Nour and her family have been subjected to blows the UAE’s rhetoric around tolerance right out of the water,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Abdel Nour should be allowed to spend her last days watched over by her family, not by prison guards who keep her shackled to a hospital bed.”

State security forces arrested Abdel Nour at her family home in the northern emirate of Ajman on July 28, 2015, family members told Human Rights Watch. Security forces took her to a secret detention facility and held her in a cold room without windows, lights, or proper ventilation. She told family members that they did not provide a mattress or a blanket and for almost 15 continuous days, blindfolded her, forbade her to sleep or pray, and restricted her bathroom access.

She was not allowed to call her family for more than a month and was held in solitary confinement for four months. She was diagnosed with breast cancer a month into her detention. Despite her ailing health, family members said security officials interrogated her while blindfolded and shackled, and threatened to hang her from her feet and beat her and to harm her parents and torture her sister.

In November 2015, state security personnel blindfolded her, took her into an office, and forced her to sign a confession she could not see, family members said. Afterward, they moved her to al-Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi where she spent another 11 months in pretrial detention, despite medical examinations showing her health was rapidly deteriorating. She told her family she was held in a small, dirty cell, at times with up to 15 other prisoners. During this time, she went on several hunger strikes to protest the lack of adequate medical care and the unhygienic conditions, family members said.

The officials did not inform Abdel Nour or her family of the reason for her arrest, allowed her only a handful of calls to family members, and denied her access to legal counsel throughout her pretrial detention, family members said. The state security prosecutor first informed her of the charges against her on September 5, 2016, just over two years after her arrest, the Emirati newspaper Al Etihad reported. They included: financing terrorist groups, managing websites and publishing news and information about al-Qaeda, and publishing information harmful to the state.

Family members said they believe her arrest was connected to small donations she made to Syrian families in 2011 at the outset of the Syrian uprising. Family members said that the evidence presented included her forced confession and a record of websites officials claimed she had visited. During a court hearing on January 18, 2017, Abdel Nour’s lawyer called for the charges against her to be dropped on the basis of lack of sufficient evidence and a confession obtained under duress, the state-owned newspaper Al Bayan reported. On February 16, around one month later, the state security branch of the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeals sentenced her to ten years in prison. On May 15, 2017, the Federal Supreme Court upheld her conviction.

Family members said that despite her failing health, prison authorities only moved Abdel Nour to a hospital – Mafraq hospital in Abu Dhabi – in November 2016. Medical reports from August 2016 confirming her condition noted massive weight loss and severe malnourishment.

In an April 2017 medical report reviewed by Human Rights Watch, Mafraq Hospital doctors stated that Abdel Nour needed to start chemotherapy followed by surgery but claimed she was refusing treatment. Abdel Nour’s family disputed that and said that during one of their visits to Mafraq hospital, she told them that a female prison guard forced her to sign a document stating that she was refusing treatment. Throughout her time at Mafraq hospital, her family said they only had sporadic contact, sometimes not hearing from her for over a month.

Authorities transferred her on January 10, 2018 to Tawam hospital. According to the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company, SEHA, she was transferred there for palliative care. On January 21, family members said, they were authorized to visit her there where they saw her chained to the bed and heavily guarded. When they asked prison guards to remove the chains as they were causing her pain, they said the chains would only be removed after her death.

Family members said that they have repeatedly reached out to the Interior Ministry, the Public Prosecutor, and the crown prince to request her compassionate release on health grounds, which is permitted under Emirati law, but that their requests have been rejected without explanation. Emirati law also requires prison authorities to allow family members unimpeded access to prisoners with a terminal illness. Doctors recently informed Abdel Nour’s family that she has only a few months to live.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious allegations of violations of due process and fair trial guarantees in the UAE, especially in state security-related cases. These include allegations of torture and ill-treatment at state security facilities.

A May 2015 report on the UAE by the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers confirms the patterns of abuse in the UAE’s handling of state security cases, including denying legal assistance during pretrial incommunicado detention, and admitting coerced confessions as evidence in court proceedings.

“A truly tolerant state would not let one of their citizens suffer the insurmountable difficulties Abdel Nour has been subjected to,” Whitson said. “While heart wrenching, Abdel Nour’s case is not unique. UAE leaders should divert their efforts from public relations campaigns to actually eradicating abuse and instituting the rule of law.” 

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