(Beirut) – Emirati authorities detained eight Lebanese nationals for more than a year without charge in an unknown location, ill-treating them and denying them their due process rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Their trial, which began on February 13, 2019, continues to be marred with violations. The third session is set for March 27.
Family members told Human Rights Watch that the defendants, who face terrorism charges, have been held in prolonged solitary confinement and denied access to their families, legal counsel, and the evidence against them. At least three detainees told family members that state security forces forced them to sign statements while blindfolded and under duress, and one said they forced him to sign a blank paper.
“The UAE authorities reveal in their treatment of these men just how unwilling they are to reform their unjust state security apparatus,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These men deserve, at the very least, to be treated humanely and to receive a fair trial.”
The men – all of whom are Shia Muslims – have each lived and worked in the UAE for more than 15 years. Seven worked at Emirates Airlines as flight attendants, pursers, or senior managers. Family members said that none had any known political affiliations.
State security forces arrested one defendant between December 2017 and January 2018, three defendants on January 15, and four others on February 18, and continue to hold them in solitary confinement without access to legal assistance, family members said. At the second session of their trial, on February 27, 2019, the prosecutor charged them with setting up a terrorist cell with links to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah holds several key positions in the Lebanese government, yet is designated a terrorist organization in the UAE. Family members said that at least seven of the men still have not been able to meet with their lawyers and six remain in solitary confinement. All of the defendants deny the charges, family members who attended the hearings said.
State security forces allowed at least two of the men to contact their families 10 days after their arrest. They have been allowed brief contact since, but guards would end the call if they tried to discuss detention conditions. Three others remained in incommunicado detention for about three months. The men were not allowed family visits before the trial began, and since then, the families of at least six have had only one 20-minute visit.
Families members said they feared their relatives had been mistreated in detention. “His teeth were all broken, and his ear looked mangled,” a family member said of one detainee. “He said it was from all the beatings he got to the face. He said that after he fell unconscious one time, they continued to kick him. For five days, he wasn’t allowed to sit or to sleep. He was chained and his eyes were covered. Until this day, when he leaves his cell, he is blindfolded.”
While other defendants did not mention being physically abused, the family members of at least three of the men said they had lost a lot of weight, and appeared weak, pale, and frightened. One man told his family he was subjected to psychological abuse. “He said to us that we were the first people he had seen or talked to since his arrest,” a family member said. Another told his family that he had not seen the sun in over a year.
The first hearing, of which at least three of the defendants and their families were not informed, lasted only 10 minutes, as several of the men did not yet have lawyers, family members said.
The Dubai-based English-language newspaper Gulf News published an article on the first day of the trial listing several charges that the state security court prosecutor would announce in court at the second hearing. The article said the charges also include “communicating with Hezbollah in favor of Iran and collecting sensitive security information from the UAE’s ports and airports.” The families have not been able to obtain copies of the charge sheets or any other case files, including any evidence against the men.
Family members said that one defendant told the court that he was forced to sign a statement while chained and blindfolded, and that others said they were being treated unjustly. The judge apparently dismissed the session without promising to investigate their allegations.
Four families said they hired private lawyers to defend their relatives. Others were assigned court appointed lawyers. Two privately hired lawyers, one of whom later withdrew from the case, told family members the state security prosecution made them sign pledges not to share case files or evidence with family members. One lawyer, who later dropped his client’s case without explanation, told the family members he was not allowed to see the case files. None of the lawyers have been allowed to meet with their clients, the family members said. “Do you even know what my brother looks like?” one of defendants’ family members said they asked his lawyer once.
Family members have repeatedly asked the Lebanese authorities to intervene, but they said no consular representative has visited the detainees or attended any of the hearings. Three of the detainees’ family members said that representatives of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, and Foreign Affairs and Justice Ministries said that UAE authorities are refusing to cooperate with them.
Prolonged solitary confinement is strictly prohibited under international law and can amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. No fair trial will be possible when defendants do not have full access to their lawyers or to the evidence against them, or if evidence obtained under duress is used to convict them, Human Rights Watch said.
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 handling of state security cases, including denying legal assistance during pretrial incommunicado detention and admitting coerced confessions as evidence in court proceedings.
Between 2009 and 2016, Human Rights Watch, as well as Deutsche Welle and several other media outlets, reported on the indiscriminate deportations of hundreds of Lebanese Shias from the UAE without due process or any opportunity for redress. In some cases, Emirati authorities refused to give any justification for the expulsions and in others, reportedly accused deportees of links to Hezbollah and Iran.
Ahead of the next trial hearing, security forces should remove the men from solitary confinement, allow them unfettered access to their lawyers, allow their families regular visits, and ensure that the hearing is heard fully in public. The Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeals, where all state security-related cases are heard, should ensure that no statements obtained under duress are used as evidence of guilt.
“Time and again, the UAE has used the specter of terrorism to justify its utter lack of respect for the rule of law,” Whitson said. “By not respecting the rights of the defendants to a fair trial, the Emirati authorities are indicating that they have already decided the outcome.”