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Abu Dhabi's skyline, United Arab Emirates.  © 2016 Kamran Jebreili /AP Photo

(Beirut) – UAE authorities continue to hold at least five Emirati prisoners who completed their sentences between one and three years ago, Human Rights Watch said today. Emirati activists said that the men remain behind bars for “counseling” without a clear legal basis.

Three of the men were sentenced to three years in prison and two to five years on state security charges following what appear to be unfair trials in 2014 and 2016. They are Osama al-Najjar, an online activist; Khalifa al-Rabea and Othman al-Shehhi, online activists and members of al-Islah, a nonviolent, legally registered Islamist political movement that the UAE banned in 2014 as “terrorist” in response to upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere; and Badr al-Buhairi and Ahmad al-Mulla, activists with ties to al-Islah.

“Denying detainees freedom for years past their completed sentences demonstrates brazen contempt of the rule of law,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These men all have lives and families to go back to and should not face the cruel and unlawful prospect of indefinite detention.”

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 arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment at state security facilities. 

Al-Najjar used Twitter to campaign for the release of his father and other political detainees in Abu Dhabi and to criticize the conviction of 69 Emirati nationals in July 2013 in a mass trial of activists who demanded political reforms. Security forces arrested Al-Najjar in March 2014 and held him without charge for over six months. In November 2014, the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court sentenced him to three years in prison under the overly restrictive cybercrimes law, on broadly worded charges including “damaging institutions” and “communicating with external organizations to provide misleading information.” Al-Najjar was scheduled for release in March 2017.

In March 2014, the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court sentenced al-Rabea and al-Shehhi to five-year prison terms for their comments on Twitter in support of scores of political dissidents arrested in 2012 – many of whom were prosecuted in the mass trial of July 2013. Both men were arrested in July 2013 and held in undisclosed locations in solitary confinement for months before their trial.

They were convicted under both the cybercrimes law and the penal code on charges of “joining a secret organization” – an apparent reference to al-Islah – and “creating and managing websites [accounts] on the social networking site Twitter and disseminating news and ideas that incite hatred and disturbing public order.” The court refused to order an investigation into claims by both men that they had been tortured and ill-treated in detention. They were scheduled for release in July 2018.

Emirati security forces arrested al-Buhairi and al-Mulla in April 2014. In June 2016, the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court sentenced them to three years in prison on charges of “joining a secret organization.” They were scheduled for release in April 2017.

The Emirati activists said that, despite completing their sentences, all five men are in al-Razeen prison on accusations of “posing a terrorist threat,” which under the UAE’s repressive counterterrorism law of 2014 appears to permit indefinite detention.

Article 40 (1) of the counterterrorism law stipulates that “a person shall be deemed as posing a terrorist threat if said person adopts extremist or terrorist ideology to the extent that he/she seems likely to commit a terrorist offense.” Article 40 (2) mandates that those seen to pose a terrorist threat shall by court order, upon the request of the state security prosecution, be placed in counseling, or Munasaha, centers, which article 1 defines as “administrative units aimed at enlightenment and reform of persons deemed to pose a terrorist threat or those convicted of terrorist offences.”

Article 41 states that the court may subject a person deemed to pose a terrorist threat to one or more of the following measures for the duration the court decides, including a travel ban, surveillance, being barred from living in a specific place or designated area, being prohibited from visiting specific locations or places, and being banned from contacting specific people.

Under article 48 of the counterterrorism law, the public prosecutor may place someone convicted of a terrorist offense in a “Munasaha program” that would be implemented in the penitentiary wherein the convict serves his sentence. The program would be carried out under the supervision of a Munasaha center.

The law fails to define a terrorist threat clearly, Human Rights Watch said. It sets no time limit for continued detention and instead requires the state security public prosecution to report to the court every three months. The court may order a person’s release if it finds that “his or her condition so allows.” It is not clear if the defendant has any right to attend the hearing or see or challenge the evidence used to justify their detention.

In al-Buhairi and al-Mulla’s cases, Emirati newspaper Al Itihad reported in October 2017 that the Federal Supreme Court upheld a previous conviction sentencing them to six months in a Munasaha center, subjecting them to surveillance, and banning them from travel for that same period. Emirati activists said that while that sentence has also expired, al-Buhairi and al-Mulla are still in al-Razeen prison in Abu Dhabi.

Activists said that al-Najjar, al-Rabea, and al-Shehhi are also in al-Razeen prison beyond completion of past sentences on the pretext of “posing a terrorist threat.”

UAE authorities should immediately clarify whether the five men held beyond their original sentences face charges for recognizable criminal activity. If so, they should be charged and brought to trial as quickly as possible. If not, authorities should release them immediately.

International human rights law protects basic rights, including the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of liberty. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its general comment on article nine of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stated that, “if, under the most exceptional circumstances, a present, direct and imperative threat is invoked to justify the detention of persons considered to present such a threat, the burden of proof lies on States parties to show that the individual poses such a threat and that it cannot be addressed by alternative measures, and that burden increases with the length of the detention. States parties also need to show that detention does not last longer than absolutely necessary, that the overall length of possible detention is limited and that they fully respect the guarantees provided for by article 9 in all cases.”

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.

“While proclaiming to the world that it is leading the fight against terrorism, the UAE has empowered its courts to order the continued and indefinite detention of opponents and critics on flimsy legal grounds,” Page said. “UAE authorities seem absolutely committed to squelching any and all manner of peaceful dissent, whether expressed today or in the past.” 

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