The Human Rights Subcommittee of the European Parliament held a day-long hearing on the human rights situation in the Gulf states. Matthew Hedges, a British researcher, who was jailed in the UAE on trumped-up espionage charges, also participated.
In his article on “LobeLog” website, Eldar Mamedov, adviser to the European Parliament on the Arabian Peninsula and Iran and the responsible for coordinating the delegations of relations, talks about the dark side of the UAE, where in recent years the human rights situation in the Gulf has received the scrutiny it deserves in the European Parliament.
The EU governments regard the oil-rich Gulf states as their strategic allies in terms of regional security, energy, trade, and arms exports. But this geopolitical situation no longer protects them from public criticism.
The European scrutiny of human rights is not equal among the Gulf states, Mamedov says. Saudi Arabia has attracted the most attention, partly because of its size and status in the Muslim world as the guardian of the two Holy mosques.
It also makes Saudi Arabia an easy target because it is seen as a “medieval kingdom” ruled by a capricious prince who attacks and starves civilians in Yemen. Activists, including women, are imprisoned and Saudi activists do not improve its image. The country receives accusations of toughness and laxity on the financing of terrorism and money laundering and usually condemns the European Parliament in the decisions of the Kingdom’s actions.
The official in the European Parliament compared Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and its image in the European Parliament, where Abu Dhabi is the closest ally of Riyadh in the region. Pointing out that the European Parliament recently adopted a resolution condemning the UAE for the persecution of human rights defenders such as Ahmed Mansour. He also voted to call for a ban on arms sales to the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, for the country’s role in Yemen. This was inconceivable only two years ago.
“Overall, however, the reaction to human rights abuses in and by the UAE is much more subdued,” Mamedov said. Adding that this is because “Emiratis enjoy a much better image in Brussels and other Western capitals than their Saudi peer.”
UAE diplomats, lobbying companies and public relations are working to serve Abu Dhabi and present it as a “beacon of modernity, tolerance, and inclusion in a region where these values are often found wanting,” Mamedov said.
Mamedov pointed out that the recent visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi for an interfaith meeting was important in promoting this positive image of the UAE.
Mamedov pointed out that the UAE has benefited from the “existing biases and fears of Western public opinion on Islam, the UAE positions itself as a successful model of a Muslim society in the twenty-first century.”
“The relative social openness and the interfaith dialogue are only the visible sides of the Emirati model.” Mamedov said, “The other, much less glamorous, side involves a strictly authoritarian regime and repression.”
The Mamedov pointed to what Matthew Hedges said, a British Ph.D. student researching the UAE security apparatus. He was arrested in the UAE in May 2018 on espionage charges and spent seven months in solitary confinement. He pointed out that “Hedges” is qualified to talk about the “dark side of the UAE,” where he gave a strong testimony on his experience at the European Parliament.
He spoke of how he was interrogated nonstop in six or seven weeks, sometimes for 15 hours a day. He was held in a dark, windowless cell that allowed other prisoners to be tortured. Hedges was drugged and manipulated to confessing crimes he did not commit. Only after he confessed, under severe coercion, of spying for the security intelligence service MI6, he was allowed to contact the British Embassy.
Mamedov said, “Hedges’s tormentors made a mockery of a fair trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Eventually, after UK diplomatic intervention, he was released on a pardon. The UAE presented it as a gesture of magnanimity towards a citizen of a friendly nation. However, a pardon means that technically the conviction for espionage still stands. It also does not compensate for the violations of his human rights or the consequences to his health of forced drug injection.”
“There are many others who are still languishing in Emirati prisons for their political activities and can count on virtually no international support,” Mamedov said in his article.
He pointed out that in 2012, 94 activists were arrested and accused of being members of the Reform Society and accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Mohammed al-Roken, the last human rights lawyer in the UAE, was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for practicing his profession. According to Human Rights Watch, in March 2018, the UAE imposed a 10-year prison sentence on a prominent academic, Nasser bin Ghaith, who was forcibly seized by the authorities in 2015 and charged with peaceful criticism of the UAE and the Egyptian authorities.
“All this repression is conducted by the State Security Court, which operates outside the ordinary legal system, with no oversight and accountability of any sort. And the definition of “state security crimes” is so broad that it can cover not just political opposition activists, but anyone with a semblance of independent thought. In December 2018, the UAE also widened the scope of the penal code in a way that enables the authorities to treat almost any information as a secret vital to the country’s defense.”
Hedges concluded his testimony by inviting EU governments to hold “despotic regimes” accountable. “At the very least,” Hedges said, “enjoying the friendly, blossoming relations with the UAE should not lead us to pretend that we share the same values.”