(Beirut) – An Emirati court sentenced an Omani man to life in prison in May 2020, following what appears to have been a grossly unfair trial, Human Rights Watch said today.
A family member said that following the arrest of Abdullah al-Shaamsi in August 2018, when he was 19 and still attending high school in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), state security forces subjected him to incommunicado detention, prolonged solitary confinement, and torture. Al-Shaamsi, now 21, has depression and kidney cancer.
“Sentencing a man who has depression and cancer to life in prison using a tainted confession is a harrowing example of the unfair UAE justice system,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “UAE authorities are refusing to provide information about al-Shaamsi’s condition while holding him during the Covid-19 crisis in a prison known for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and lack of access to adequate health care.”
Al-Shaamsi’s trial, which began in February 2020, more than a year and half after his arrest, was marred with due process violations, family members told Human Rights Watch, including denying him access to a lawyer during interrogation and accepting an allegedly forced confession as evidence. Al Shaamsi’s lawyer, who was appointed by the Omani embassy, submitted a request for appeal on June 4.
Al-Shamsi told family members that he was not informed of any charges against him throughout his pretrial detention and that the evidence against him, only presented to him a month before his trial, included tweets he denied making and online competitions he participated in when he was just 17, which were hosted by Emirati TV stations as well as the Qatari-owned TV station al-Rayyan. As part of these competitions, al-Shaamsi won prizes which amount to around AED 5,000 (US$1,361), a family member said.
The authorities also denied al-Shaamsi access to family members for about six months. While the family member said that the UAE authorities have barred the family from attending most court hearings as well as access to the charge sheet and other court documents, they said a lawyer familiar with the case told them the charges included spying for Qatar, which his family denies.
On May 31, family members, who have been denied contact with al-Shaamsi since early March, received news from other prisoners that he is in a quarantine cell for prisoners infected with the virus that causes Covid-19 in al-Wathba Prison, just outside Abu Dhabi. The family requested information from prison authorities about whether he has been tested for the coronavirus or experienced Covid-19 symptoms, but they were not given any information. Human Rights Watch previously reported on outbreaks of Covid-19 in at least three Emirati detention facilities, including al-Wathba.
Al-Shaamsi, whose mother is a UAE citizen, disappeared on August 18, 2018, after leaving the family’s house in al-Ain, east of Abu Dhabi. His family said that they didn’t know where he was or what had happened to him until September 16, when a group of men wearing military and civilian clothing and a policewoman brought him to the house. Without identifying themselves or presenting a search warrant, they searched his house, confiscated his electronic devices, and took him away again.
Family members said that they made inquiries, but that the authorities refused to reveal his whereabouts. The family member said that until February 14, 2019, when they were first allowed to visit him in al-Wathba Prison, state security forces held him in solitary confinement in a secret detention facility.
Solitary confinement can trigger and exacerbate psychological distress and be particularly harmful for people with mental health conditions. Prolonged solitary confinement is strictly prohibited under international law, should never be used on people with mental health conditions, and can amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
In one of the few family visits that followed, al-Shaamsi said that during the first three months of interrogation, state security forces tortured him with beatings, electric shocks, and pulling out his fingernails, among other methods. The authorities denied him access to legal counsel throughout his pretrial detention. In one phone call, al-Shaamsi said that interrogators forced him to sign a confession while blindfolded, which was later used against him in court. The family member said they saw signs of torture on his body twice during family visits, in February 2019 and March 2020.
Prior to his arrest, al-Shaamsi had been receiving treatment for kidney cancer, which led to the removal of one of his kidneys, and was receiving mental health medication and counseling. The family member said that during pretrial detention, authorities admitted al-Shaamsi to the psychiatric department of Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi for two weeks after he experienced what they described as a “mental health breakdown.”
The family member said that he was also diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes during detention. The family member said that al-Shaamsi told them he receives medication for cancer and depression, but his family has not been able to obtain access to medical reports or more detailed information on his condition, treatment, and medication.
The trial, which began on February 5 at the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeals, where all state security-related cases are heard, consisted of three hearings in February and March and a final sentencing hearing on May 6, during which the state security prosecutor first informed al-Shaamsi of the specific charges he faced. The sentencing hearing was conducted remotely due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Family members were only granted permission to attend the five-minute second hearing in March. At that hearing, a government medical committee confirmed that al-Shaamsi has a mental health condition, but concluded that it should not be taken into account during his trial.
In late April, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion on al-Shaamsi’s case that found his detention arbitrary, stating that the government’s response to the allegations of torture and due process violations do not sufficiently rebut the allegations, and saying that the authorities should ensure his immediate release.
Al-Shaamsi’s family last visited him in March, just before authorities banned in-person prison visits to contain the spread of Covid-19. The last phone call Al-Shaamsi made to his family members was on October 6, 2019. On May 31, other prisoners’ relatives informed his family that he had been transferred to an isolation cell with around 30 others.
His family member said that after receiving this news they visited the prison to inquire about his health, but prison authorities threatened them with arrest if they did not leave. The family member said that the Omani Embassy informed them on June 3 that Emirati authorities denied any outbreak of Covid-19 in al-Wathba Prison.
Given al Shaamsi’s medical history, UAE authorities should immediately grant him the medical care he requires, as well as provide his family with relevant and timely informtion regarding his mental and physical health, Human Rights Watch said.
“UAE authorities have compounded the suffering of al-Shaamsi’s family by intentionally keeping them in the dark about his health amid reports of a Covid-19 outbreak in his prison,” Page said.