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Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 3, 2019. © 2019 Hamad Mohammed/Reuters

(Beirut) – United Arab Emirates authorities are continuing to incarcerate at least 51 Emirati prisoners who completed their sentences between one month and nearly four years ago, Human Rights Watch said today.

The prisoners are all part of the grossly unfair “UAE94” mass trial of 69 critics of the government, whose convictions violated their rights to free expression, association, and assembly. UAE authorities are using baseless counterterrorism justifications for continuing to hold them past their completed sentences.

“Prisoners in the UAE94 case have already suffered tremendously after years in prison following a grossly unfair trail,” said Joey Shea, United Arab Emirates researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Emirati authorities should free them immediately and finally put an end to this decade-long ordeal. Prominent UAE partners, including the United States and COP28 organizers, should press UAE authorities for their immediate release.”

The prisoners were among 94 people detained beginning in March 2012 in a wave of arbitrary arrests amid an unprecedented crackdown on dissent. The case had a chilling effect on freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

In July 2013, Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court convicted 69 of the defendants, sentencing 5 to 7 years in prison, 56 to 10 years, and 8 in absentia to 15 years, with 25 acquitted. The verdict could not be appealed, in violation of international law, because it was issued by the UAE’s highest court.

As of March 2023, 51 had completed their sentences but remain imprisoned with no clear legal basis, according to Emirati activists and court documents. Some prisoners completed their sentences as early as July 2019.

The defendants were convicted under article 180 of the penal code, which criminalizes association with a group that aims to overthrow the country’s political system. Attorney General Salem Saeed Kubaish released a statement in January 2013 alleging that the 94 “launched, established, and ran an organization seeking to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and to seize power.” Many of the defendants were arrested solely because they were affiliated with a non-violent political group, the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah), which advocated greater adherence to Islamic precepts and engaged in peaceful political debate in the UAE for years.

The UAE’s repressive 2014 counterterrorism law appears to permit indefinite detention for prisoners who continue to pose a “terrorist threat,” which the law does not clearly define. These prisoners can be placed in counselling or Munasaha centers upon the request of state security prosecution. Article 1 of the counterterrorism law defines these Munasaha centers as “administrative units aimed at enlightenment and reform of persons deemed to pose a terrorist threat or those convicted of terrorist offenses.”

At least four of the 51 received a Public Prosecution letter saying that they were on Munasaha during what was supposed to be their last three months in detention, activists and family members told Human Rights Watch. After three months, these detainees were taken in front of a judge, who determined they still held “terrorist thoughts” and ruled that they needed further “rehabilitation.”

Under article 48 of the counterterrorism law, the public prosecutor may place someone convicted of a terrorist offense in a counselling or Munasaha program in the prison where they were serving their sentence, under counselling center supervision.

In at least one case, the authorities told a prisoner that he would be taken before a court to determine whether his imprisonment would be extended, a family member said. The court assigned him a lawyer who never met with him and who was not allowed to attend the court session. The prisoner was not allowed to attend the full session and was not informed how long his incarceration had been extended, the family member said.

Other prisoners have received no information about their release or the extension of their sentences, family members said. “The reality is that we know he will not be released because there is no sign, we can’t put any legal pressure, and no one can put pressure on the authorities to release him, so we have only hope,” one family member said. “[The court] sentenced him to 10 years, and the 10 years are completed, so why is he still in prison? There is no reason, no justice.”

The counterterrorism law sets no time limit for continued incarceration 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.

The violations of fair trial standards in the 2013 trial included denying the defendants legal assistance during pretrial incommunicado detention, and allegations of torture and other ill-treatment. Sixty-four of the detainees were held at undisclosed locations for up to a year and were denied legal assistance until late February 2013. Family members, international observers, and international media were denied access to the mass trial. Defendants’ lawyers were harassed and some were arrested.

The authorities failed to investigate credible allegations that defendants’ statements used as evidence during the trial were obtained through torture. At a trial hearing, defendants detailed to the judge allegations of serious ill-treatment while in detention, including prolonged solitary confinement, exposure to 24-hour bright fluorescent lighting that made sleep impossible, inadequate heating, and repeated insults by prison guards.

The decade of unjust imprisonment has had devastating consequences for the prisoners’ families. A family member said that the young child of one of the prisoners still does not understand why her father was in prison. “She asks me, we love our country and our leaders, why are they are doing this to my father?” the family member said.

Many prisoners are being held in the notorious al-Razeen prison, and many are alleged to be in solitary confinement. A family member said, “All the prisoners are suffering there, they don’t have their rights and it is very hard to visit them.” Another family member said: “Throughout the years, the conditions are getting worse.”

Visits are irregular and difficult to procure, the family members said. Families often drive for hours to the prison in the middle of the desert, only to be denied a visit with no explanation. Family members also said that phone conversations are often cut off mid-call with no explanation. Some prisoners have not been able to speak with their family members by phone for years.

Other family members said there have been months-long periods in which a prisoner, as one family member said, “totally disappeared” with “no calls, no nothing,” leading the family to believe that “maybe he is dead.” Prisoners are also often denied books and pictures.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in article 15 prohibits retroactive criminal punishment. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its general comment on article 9 of the ICCPR, said, “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.”

“By arbitrarily extending the unjust sentences of peaceful critics using bogus counterterrorism justifications without due process, the UAE again shows its total disregard for the rule of law,” Shea said.

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