UAE: Release sisters secretly detained for three months over tweets

Authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have subjected three sisters to enforced disappearance for three months in a chilling act of repression, said Amnesty International, renewing its calls for their immediate and unconditional release.

Security officials summoned the women for questioning at a police station in Abu Dhabi on 15 February. Since then, the sisters, Asma Khalifa al-Suwaidi, Mariam Khalifa al-Suwaidi and Dr Alyaziyah Khalifa al-Suwaidi, have been held in secret detention and with no contact with the outside world. They had campaigned peacefully on Twitter on behalf of their brother, a prisoner of conscience imprisoned following an unfair mass trial of 94 activists in 2013.

“The enforced disappearance of these three women is a crime under international law and a shameful act of cruelty. The sisters are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence. They must be immediately and unconditionally released”, said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa programme.

“By subjecting these sisters to enforced disappearance because of their online campaign on behalf of their imprisoned brother, the UAE authorities are showing utter disregard for free speech and for those activists who peacefully stand up for their rights and those of their loved ones. Anyone who dares criticize the government’s human rights abuses risks arrest, torture, prosecution in unfair trial, travel bans or other harassment.”

The enforced disappearance of these three women is a crime under international law and a shameful act of cruelty.
Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme

Amnesty International believes that the sisters are prisoners of conscience who have been detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and must be immediately and unconditionally released, as should their brother and other prisoners of conscience.

The day after their arrest, the sisters’ mother received a brief telephone call from someone who said he was calling from “the security body.” He told her that her daughters were “fine” but gave no information about their whereabouts or the reason for their arrest.

“It is completely unacceptable that the authorities have continued to hold these women for three months in an undisclosed location, without access to their family or a lawyer, or even official acknowledgement that they are in custody. Such treatment is intended to punish their family, as well as the women, and to send a strong message to others that the UAE does not tolerate dissent and that speaking out puts you and your family at risk,” said Said Boumedouha.

Detainees held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance are extremely vulnerable and are more susceptible to making “confessions” under duress, which are then accepted in court as evidence of their guilt.

A blog maintained by Dr Alyaziyah Khalifa al-Suwaidi was taken offline around 10 days after her arrest. Amnesty International fears she may have been coerced by officials into giving up her password.

The treatment of these women is starkly at odds with the progressive image that the authorities seek to project abroad regarding women’s rights.

Last month, the UAE’s Permanent Representative to the UN proudly declared that the authorities “champion women’s empowerment at every level of [UAE] society”.

“It is hard to see how removing these sisters from the spotlight by locking them up in a secret jail does anything to empower these or other women calling for greater rights and freedoms,” said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa programme.

It is hard to see how removing these sisters from the spotlight by locking them up in a secret jail does anything to empower these or other women calling for greater rights and freedoms
Said Boumedouha

Mariam Khalifa al-Suwaidi is a graduate of universities in the UAE and UK, and the winner of a teaching prize. Alyaziyah Khalifa al-Suwaidi has a doctorate from the UK and was, until her detention, a keen blogger, photographer, and painter. Asma Khalifa al-

Suwaidi is a sociology graduate who, for some time, supervised projects as the head of social media in the UAE Women’s Affairs Office.

Background

The three women had been peacefully campaigning online for the release of their brother, Dr Issa al-Suwaidi. He is one of 69 people, including eight in absentia, convicted after the 2013 unfair mass trial of 94 government critics and reformist activists, widely known as the “UAE 94” trial. They were convicted on the charge of establishing an organization that aimed to bring about the government’s overthrow, a charge which they all denied. The defendants included prominent lawyers, judges, academics and student leaders. In November 2013, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned the trial, declaring that the arrest and detention of those imprisoned resulted directly from their legitimate exercise of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association.