(Beirut) – The United Arab Emirates authorities should immediately reveal the whereabouts of Nasser bin Ghaith, an academic detained on August 18, 2015, and being held at an undisclosed location. The authorities should allow bin Ghaith access to a lawyer and contact with his family. The circumstances of his detention are consistent with previous cases of arbitrary detention by state security officials whom former and current detainees have accused of torture.
UAE security authorities have neither acknowledged nor given any reason for their detention of bin Ghaith. He spent seven months in prison in 2011 on charges of “publicly insulting” top UAE officials. He recently criticized the Egyptian security forces’ mass killing of demonstrators in Cairo’s Rab’a Square in 2013 after the ouster of Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government. The UAE is a key ally of Egypt’s current government, and since 2012 UAE authorities have arbitrarily detained scores of people suspected of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It appears that Nasser bin Ghaith has once again fallen victim to the UAE authorities’ intolerance of criticism and fear of free speech,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “It is extremely worrying that bin Ghaith’s wellbeing rests with a state security apparatus with a reputation for torture and disregard of the law.”
Local sources told Human Rights Watch that 13 security officers in civilian clothes arrested bin Ghaith in the Armed Forces Officers Club in Abu Dhabi on the afternoon of August 19. They took him to Dubai, where they searched his home and confiscated items that included electronic memory sticks.
His whereabouts are unknown and Human Rights Watch has not been able to speak with his family members. People who are known to have spoken with rights groups are at serious risk of arbitrary detention and imprisonment in the UAE. The UAE’s 2014 counterterrorism law provides for the death penalty for people whose activities are found to “undermine national unity or social peace.”
In 2014, the Federal Supreme Court sentenced Osama al-Najjar, an Emirati whose father, Hossain, is serving an 11-year sentence after an unfair trial, to three years in jail on charges that included “communicating with external organizations to provide misleading information.”
Analysis of bin Ghaith’s Twitter feed reveals that on August 13 and 14, the anniversary of the Rab’a Square massacre, bin Ghaith made three comments that could be construed as critical of the Egyptian authorities’ failure to hold anyone accountable for the deaths of protesters at the hands of the security forces. At the time of his arrest in 2011, bin Ghaith was an economist and university lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi.
In the last three months, UAE media have reported that seven people have been sentenced to prison for speech-related offenses and that another is facing trial.
On May 18, the Federal Supreme Court found five Qatari nationals guilty of “attempting to ruin the reputation of the state by spreading insulting images of the country.” Four were tried and convicted in absentia, but the other, Hamad al-Hammadi, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
On May 25, local media reported that the Federal Supreme Court sentenced a UAE national, Ahmed Abdulla al-Wahdi, to 10 years in prison for “creating and running a social media account that insults the UAE’s leadership and the country’s institutions.”
On June 29, local media reported that the Federal Supreme Court found that Nasser al-Junaibi, a UAE national, had “spread rumors and information that harmed the country” and “insulted government entities,” and sentenced him to three years in prison. Newspaper reports said that the court-appointed lawyer assigned to the case refused to attend a trial session on May 4.
In August 2012, Human Rights Watch reported that the harassment of leading defense lawyers was making it nearly impossible for detained peaceful dissidents to get access to a lawyer, and the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers has expressed concern over “reports of surveillance, harassment, pressure and threats being exerted on lawyers” in the UAE, and has said that “lawyers should not be identified with their clients or their clients’ cause as a result of discharging their professional functions.”
On August 24, the Federal Supreme Court will try 41 people under a 2014 counterterrorism law on charges of setting up a terrorist organization. The authorities have not disclosed details of the case or the identities of the defendants, although local media quoted Attorney General Salem Saeed Kubaish as saying that the defendants “set up and ran a terrorist group called Shabab Al Manara.” The UAE’s counterterrorism law enables the courts, which a UN expert described as being “under the de facto control” of the government, to convict peaceful government critics as terrorists and sentence them to death.
The convictions of 69 defendants in a mass trial of 94 government critics on July 2, 2013, were based on a fundamentally unfair trial and violated the rights of free expression and association of many of those accused. The trial was marred even before it started by violations of fair trial standards, including the denial of legal assistance during lengthy pretrial incommunicado detention, and allegations of torture that the court failed to investigate adequately.