On June 9, Bahrain finally allowed prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to serve the remainder of his prison sentence at home with his family. Nabeel had been in jail since 2016 on spurious speech charges. Though released he remains silenced, knowing any remarks about human rights in Bahrain or communication with rights groups could land him back in prison.
Nabeel’s transfer from prison also puts a spotlight on Ahmed Mansoor, the leading human rights advocate in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who, like Nabeel, also serves on Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee. Ahmed has been confined in an isolation cell in the UAE since his March 2017 arrest, deprived of books, a bed, even access to fresh air, leaving him in precarious health.
A UAE court sentenced Ahmed to 10 years in prison for “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols, including its leaders” and “publishing false reports and information on social media.”
We don’t know what alleged “insults” and “false reports” could warrant a decade behind bars. Ahmed’s trial was closed and neither the charge sheet nor the court ruling has been made public. Ahmed used Facebook and other social media platforms to call attention to miscarriages of justice in the UAE. He shared information with rights organizations abroad about unfair trials that had already put other Emirati rights activists and defense lawyers in prison.
It’s a testament to its smooth diplomacy and public relations money that the UAE has long avoided criticism of its appalling human rights record from allies like the United States, United Kingdom, and France. What would George Orwell make of a state that has brazenly hosted two “World Tolerance Summits” and created a ministry of “Happiness and Wellbeing,” after closing down political and civil society organizations that peacefully promoted views different from those of the rulers? The absence of any independent press in the UAE made Ahmed’s social media reporting important but threatening.
The UAE’s persecution of Ahmed Mansoor for his “thought crimes” has been cruel, even gratuitous. International sporting and cultural events are the face that UAE rulers present to the world, but they cannot mask the terrible spectacle of the country’s leading rights defender alone in a bare cell in inhumane conditions.