Authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) must immediately release a group of dissidents languishing behind bars despite having completed their prison sentences, Amnesty International said today. The UAE authorities are using a vaguely worded “counterterror” law, which enables them to arbitrarily keep people in detention on the pretext of “counter-extremism counselling.”
In March and April, 10 men, who were arrested in 2012 as part of a crackdown on peaceful dissent and political opposition, were due to be released after completing their sentences, yet they remain locked up. The men were among 94 Emiratis who were prosecuted in the ‘UAE-94’ case, and among 69 who received unappealable prison sentences following a grossly unfair mass trial.
“These men have already spent a decade behind bars for daring to speak out against the Emirati authorities or being perceived as political opposition, and now this injustice is being prolonged past their long-awaited release dates. This is the latest example of how UAE authorities weaponize the justice system, undermine the rule of law, criminalize peaceful dissent, and silence anyone who disagrees with them,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“UAE authorities must immediately release anyone detained beyond the completion of their prison sentence, and cease the unlawful practice of arbitrarily extending prison terms. This should come hand in hand with an immediate and unconditional release of all those who are detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights.”
Amnesty International has documented how 24 Emiratis imprisoned for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association have been held past completion of their sentences since 2017. Seven of them were eventually released, and the other 17 are still in prison.
UAE-94: A decade-old ongoing injustice
Five of the men held past the end of their sentences since March were signatories to a 2011 petition calling for a democratic parliament in the UAE. Out of 15 total UAE-94 defendants whose sentences are over, the UAE has released only one. Amnesty International considers the UAE-94 trial overall to be unlawful as a mass prosecution that resulted in the arbitrary detention of dozens of people without respect for their right to a fair trial, and found at the time of the trial that 11 of the 14 UAE-94 prisoners now held past the end of their sentences are prisoners of conscience.
The other five were prosecuted because of their association with al-Islah, an Emirati Islamist group which was affiliated with the international Muslim Brotherhood movement.
According to Emirati exiles and UAE-94 prisoners’ family members who spoke to Amnesty International, the prison administration handed the 10 men who were due for release in March and April a paper six months before the end of their sentences, stating that they would continue to be held after their sentences for “counselling”.
A son of one of the prisoners told Amnesty International:
My father has completed his sentence, and yet after all these long years, he is still locked up in prison for an indefinite period, not subject to any law.
Since 2017, Amnesty International has monitored cases of 10 prisoners from other trials whom the Emirati authorities have denied release when they completed their sentences. They were all prosecuted solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. Amnesty International has documented 32 cases of Emiratis who are currently behind bars for their peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression or association.
“Counselling” to silence dissent
Under its 2014 counterterrorism law, Emirati courts can order, upon the request of the Federal Office of Public Prosecution, a person “adopting extremist or terrorist thought” to be placed in “counselling centres”. The centre is supposed to submit a report every three months to the Office of Public Prosecution, which is used by courts to determine whether the person can be released. The law gives the prisoner no right to be present or to have legal representation in these proceedings, and no right to appeal their continued detention.
Additionally, all prisoners held past the end of their sentences continue to be jailed in the same prison, and in the same conditions, as before.
This is the latest example of how UAE authorities weaponize the justice system, undermine the rule of law, criminalize peaceful dissent, and silence anyone who disagrees with them.Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International
One family member described how his father had tried to get a lawyer to help him contest his ongoing detention, but no lawyer was willing to challenge the government by accepting his case.
“Of course, he can’t get any legal representation,” the family member said. “It’s not possible for him to get a lawyer to represent him and oppose these ongoing legal violations he’s being subjected to.”
“The UAE’s counterterrorism law is just a smokescreen which the authorities use as a tool of repression and restriction on civic space,” said Lynn Maalouf.
The UAE-94 case was a grossly unfair mass trial that the UAE authorities carried out against dissidents and members of the al-Islah political movement in 2012–2013. The prosecution used coerced “confessions” as a key element of the evidence, and these were accepted by the court.
Amnesty International also documented last year how Emirati authorities stripped two UAE-94 prisoners’ families of Emirati nationality; and prevented contact between UAE-94 prisoners and their loved ones for months or even years at a time.