Beyond Violence 

The Faltering Image of the United Arab Emirates in the Context of the Arab Spring

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Photo taken by Fauthful Chant via Flickr

In the media, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is often portrayed as a tolerant and progressive country. Impressive skyscrapers, dazzling malls, stunning beaches, luxurious seven-star hotels and a vibrant nightlife work as a magnet for tourists who want to discover another side of the Middle East. Visiting the UAE feels like being far away from the violence, poverty, repression and religious orthodoxy the Middle East is often associated with.

The UAE authorities are happy to preserve this image of the country. However, in the context of the Arab Spring this has become a much tougher task. Afraid of any spill-over of the revolutions in the region, the authorities have increased their repression. Over the last three years, offices of organisations such as the Gulf Research Centre, Konrad Adenauer Foundation and National Democratic Institute have been shut down by the government, stifling public debate. In December 2011, seven Emiratis who were among the signatories of a petition calling for a more representative government in the country were stripped of their nationality over alleged terror links. Furthermore, in November 2012, the cybercrimes decree was passed, outlawing all forms of criticism against the government as well as banning citizens from passing information to human rights organisations and journalists. Accusations of torture by police forces have also come more frequently to the fore. The most recent case has been brought forward against three British tourists, currently held under drugs charges. The Brits claim that they have endured electric shocks and have been beaten by the police. Meanwhile, the number of political prisoners has spiralled. According to the Emirates Centre for Human Rights, an independent and non-governmental organisation established to promote the defence of human rights in the UAE, there are now over 135 political prisoners. This high number of political prisoners leaves the UAE with the doubtful honour of having one of the highest per capita rates of political prisoners in the world, as it has a national population of less than one million (947,997).

The trial against the UAE 94

Currently, the biggest political trial is against a group of 94 Emiratis. The prosecutors state that the groups of men have “formed and run an illegal political organisation that has sought to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and to seize power.” The evidence against the group consists of documents, emails, financial transactions, audio and video recordings of six ‘secret meetings’ made over three years, which demonstrates that the group sought “to systematically undermine the legitimacy of the state and reputation of the rulers.” The defendants deny all accusations and have also complained about their ill treatment and the absence of a fair trial. Some of the defendants have been held in incommunicado detention, with no access to medical facilities while others have been kept in solitary confinement for more than four months. On top of that, the defendants have made accusations that they were exposed to physical torture during their detention. According to Rori Donaghy, Campaigns Coordinator at the Emirates Centre for Human Rights, “Physical torture allegations have come in the shape of testimony from defendants in court and eye-witness statements from family members/lawyers who saw defendants in court. They have appeared disoriented, lost considerable weight and some have been unable to follow proceedings.” The authorities have denied the torture allegations and have refused an independent investigation.

Furthermore, the case hearings have been surrounded by much controversy. The defendants have not had proper access to the case files or lawyers. Family members of the defendants, international observers and the international media have been barred access to the trial. The evidence brought forward by the prosecutors has further highlighted the absurdity of the trials. For example, one defendant supposedly attended a ‘secret meeting’ while being in prison and another defendant was accused of speaking on a TV show about the Arab Spring while the show was broadcast before the Arab Spring even took place. In some instances the evidence even seems to be forged, with prosecution witnesses answering fifteen questions in exactly the same way.

The authorities have attempted to frame the trial as a fight against rising Islamism - undermining the “tolerant” and “progressive” character of the country. This goes some way in explaining the reasons for why the 94 are under trial; many of the men are members of the Muslim Brotherhood inspired Al-Islah organisation. Yet while the authorities have sought to undermine the group’s political demands by tarring them as extremists, this association has been denied by the men. For example Mohammed Al-Mansoori, one of the defendants and deputy chairman of Al Islah, has consistently denied the extremist elements of the organisation, calling it “a harmless community group working for the good of the country.” It is with some irony that the repressive responses of the UAE have only served to indicate its own intolerance – as opposed to Al Islah’s supposed mantra.

Defendants gather international support – but is it enough?

There are sadly more worrying signs to address. Despite pressure from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the UAE has continued to disregard international human rights conventions. Meanwhile, the image of the UAE as a tolerant and progressive country is still being preserved. A perspective reinforced by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, following a visit from President of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa. In the words of Cameron: “the UAE is a role model in the region and must be emulated in terms of adopting balanced and wise policies at the local and foreign levels.” Notwithstanding increased pressure from media and human right organisations, Cameron refused to even mention the UAE 94 trial in his press briefing. Why? With Cameron’s hope to boost bilateral trade volume between the two countries from the current level of £7.5 billion to £12 billion, it is economic growth which trumps human rights – a fate which is told all too often.

Written by XX and published on 15-June-2013

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