Artur Ligeska remembers the first words he heard from Ahmed Mansoor, fellow prisoner and a man he would come to call his “brother.” A Polish businessman, Artur was awaiting trial on drug charges in the summer of 2018 when Mansoor – two cells down in Abu Dhabi’s notorious Al Sadr prison – called out to him.
“Ahmed Mansoor, he was the first person I could hear and he was very friendy… it was his first voice mail to me.”
On this September morning, Artur sits in a small apartment on the east side of the Vistula River in Warsaw and shares his story of a falling-out with a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family and his subsequent arrest, life sentence, and months in prison before Polish authorities secured his release. Now free, what he wants most of all is for the world to know about his friend, Ahmed Mansoor, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) highest-profile dissident, who hasn’t been heard from since his enforced disappearance in March 2017. Artur’s account of his time with Ahmed is the first detailed report of the circumstances of the rights defender since he was detained.
Ahmed Mansoor’s Twitter account has a following of over 16,000 people. Before his arrest, he often used it to criticize the UAE’s prosecution of activists for speech-related offenses and to draw attention to human rights violations across the region.
Prior to his arrest, Ahmed was the last activist standing in the UAE, and the last glimmer of light in a country that has become a black hole for human rights activism. The UAE authorities have no tolerance for critics, and a raft of repressive laws designed to quash dissent ensures that little criticism gets out. For years, Ahmed refused to be cowed, and eventually the UAE authorities moved in on him. Ahmed suffered the same consequences as the Emirati men and women he long fought for: a late-night visit from the state security apparatus in blacked out 4x4s, and whisked off in shackles to prison.
Artur claims a falling-out with a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family was the real reason behind his arrest on drugs charges in April 2018. Five months in pretrial detention in Dubai central jail was followed by a life sentence without parole, of which he served those eight months before the Polish authorities secured his release in May.
Though he is now free, Artur bears the scars of his traumatic experience. He is now seeing a specialist to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder he attributes to the brutality he saw in prison and for the rape by prison guards he says he experienced. Now back in Poland and trying to rebuild his life, he paints a picture of Ahmed’s life that is grim but tinged with hope.
In April, Human Rights Watch again called on the UAE authorities to release Ahmed, who has been a vocal proponent of political reform and a vociferous critic of the UAE’s grim record on free speech and other basic rights. The statement, and many others like it, were spurred by news that Ahmed had gone on hunger strike to protest his mistreatment in detention. The source was Artur.
News headlines about Ahmed Mansoor’s detention in the UAE since 2018.
“I never saw any physical violence against Ahmed,” Artur says. “But you sit in the four square-meter cell, you have no rights to go to [the] library. They know that you are [an] intellectual person. You have no rights to write. You have no right even to have the lights [on] in your cell. So you don’t have to have physical violence. This is terrible, and disaster, mental torture. We had to suffer.” Artur managed to keep a notebook of his time in prison and on page 150 is a sketch of his cell: a dank, insect-infested hole, four meters square, with a hole in the ground for a toilet.
Ahmed somehow managed to survive these conditions without breaking until December 2018. By that point, it had been nearly 2 years since his arrest, and 7 months after a court sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment for insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols,” including its leaders. He’d survived a great deal before that too – a seven-month spell in jail in 2011 for calling for political reform, public death threats, two physical assaults, the suspicious theft of his car, and the mysterious disappearance of thousands of US dollars’ worth of life savings from his bank account. Through it all, he persisted.
But in December 2018, when the Federal Supreme Court upheld his 10-year sentence, the news shook him. “I remember the day when he lost the appeal,” says Artur. “He came [back] to the isolation ward and he start[ed] to shout.” Shortly after, Ahmed decided to go on hunger strike. Artur, who unlike Ahmed was allowed to leave the isolation ward to go to the canteen, caught glimpses of Ahmed’s physical deterioration as he passed by the tiny window to Ahmed’s cell. “He lost immediately a lot of weight. Changed color of the face.”
Four weeks into the hunger strike, Artur says, Ahmed looked at death’s door. By this point, Ahmed had been moved to Cell 1 and direct communication between the two was no longer easy. But via the other English-speaking prisoners, Artur managed to get a hold of two phone numbers from Ahmed. “Ahmed always was saying [to] me stories about you guys. About his friends in human rights activism all around the world. And he always knew that no matter what would happen, you guys [are] going to stay next to him.” Artur, who was in the process of appealing his life sentence, dialed the numbers. Only one of the numbers still worked, and it belonged to Kristina Stockwood, a friend of Ahmed’s from the Gulf Center for Human Rights. Fortunately, Kristina picked up. In the days that followed, news of Ahmed’s month-long hunger strike ricocheted around the world.
In the years before his arrest, Ahmed was utterly isolated in the UAE. Many of the international and regional human rights groups he looked to for support are effectively banned from entering the country. The UAE spent an estimated million dollars devising spyware to hack his iPhone – spyware so sophisticated that Apple had to release a security update to all iPhone users in August 2016. In Skype calls to Human Rights Watch researchers that the UAE authorities undoubtedly listened to, Ahmed casually acknowledged the impossibility of his situation but refused to back down. “If they come for me, they come for me.” It’s chilling to realize he must have burned these two phone numbers so deeply into his memory that no amount of psychological torture could remove them.
When news of Ahmed’s hunger strike went public, things got slightly better for Ahmed, recalls Artur. He was able to leave his cell to go to the canteen, call his mother, and go outside. “I remember he was crying like a baby.”
Artur’s account of his interactions with Ahmed can’t be independently verified. After a group of United Nations human rights experts issued a statement in May 2019 saying they were “gravely concerned over imprisoned activist Ahmed Mansoor’s physical well-being,” the UAE issued a statement saying the claims were “false and unsubstantiated” and aimed at “distorting and falsifying facts.”
The only sure way of knowing Mansoor’s condition would be for the UAE to allow UN experts into Al Sadr prison – which is highly unlikely.
Before the interview ends, Artur relays one more remarkable snippet of information about Ahmed’s case: prison authorities told Ahmed that they had no control over his conditions and that all instructions came direct from the Presidential Palace. Ahmed has picked one hell of a fight.
The story of how the lives of the Polish businessman and the Emirati engineer, poet, and rights activist Ahmed Mansoor became intertwined is a tragedy for both men. One man free but shattered, another in limbo, disappeared, locked up in a dank, squalid cell and deprived of his freedom because he had the courage to fight for the freedoms of others. Yet there is hope. Even in an isolation ward in one of the most repressive countries imaginable, Ahmed managed to make a human connection and get his message out. He’s still here, and he’s still fighting.