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Human Rights Watch: UAE escalates campaign of repression and censorship against dissidents

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In its annual report for 2022, Human Rights Watch strongly criticized the UAE and said it was escalating an alarming campaign of repression and censorship against dissidents.

According to the organization, the UAE authorities continue to invest in a “soft power” strategy that aims to portray the country as a progressive, tolerant and rights-respecting country.

It indicated that many activists and dissidents have completed their sentences and are still detained simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression and association.

Prisons across the UAE also hold detainees in filthy and unsanitary conditions, with overcrowding and inadequate medical care.

The UAE continues to prevent representatives of international human rights organizations and UN experts from conducting research and independently visiting prisons and detention facilities inside the country.

The organization stated that in 2022, the UAE authorities introduced amendments to a wide range of laws but continued to wage an alarming campaign of repression and censorship against dissidents.

The UAE has expanded its capabilities in surveillance, whether on the Internet or through drones in public places.

In the UAE, local news websites practice self-censorship, and journalists face enormous restrictions in their work.

Freedom of Expression, Association, and Assembly

Scores of activists, academics, and lawyers are serving lengthy sentences in UAE prisons following unfair trials on vague and broad charges that violate their rights to free expression and association.

Ahmed Mansoor, a leading Emirati human rights defender, remained imprisoned in an isolation cell for a sixth year. Details of UAE authorities’ persecution of Mansoor emerged in 2021, revealing grave violations of his rights that demonstrated the State Security Agency’s unchecked powers to commit abuses. In July 2021, a private letter he wrote detailing his mistreatment in detention leaked to regional media, sparking renewed concern over his well-being and possible retaliation. An informed source reported that after the letter’s publication, authorities retaliated by moving Mansour to a smaller and more isolated cell, denied him access to critical medical care, and confiscated his reading glasses.

Prominent academic Nasser bin-Ghaith, serving 10 years on charges stemming from criticism of UAE and Egyptian authorities, and university professor and human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Roken, serving 10 years following his conviction alongside 68 other people in the grossly unfair “UAE 94” trial, also remained in prison. Several of those convicted in the UAE 94 trial remain in detention despite completing their sentences.

Authorities released on health grounds Michael Bryan Smith, a UK national, in October 2021 after he spent more than 10 years in prison, despite being pardoned in 2014. Authorities denied him and other prisoners living with HIV regular and uninterrupted access to critical medication and adequate healthcare throughout his detention.

In late 2021, authorities designated four self-exiled dissidents of the UAE94 group—Hamad al-Shamsi, Mohammed Saqr al-Zaabi, Ahmed al-Shaiba al-Nuaimi, and Saeed al-Tenaiji—as “terrorists” under the country’s vague and arbitrary counterterrorism law. The designation immediately led to asset freezes, property confiscations, and the criminalization of communications with them by their UAE-based relatives.

The UAE deploys some of the world’s most advanced surveillance technologies to pervasively monitor public spaces, internet activity, and even individuals’ phones and computers, in violation of their right to privacy, freedom of expression, association, and other rights. Websites, blogs, chat rooms, and social media platforms are also heavily monitored and curtailed. The authorities block and censor content online that they perceive to be critical of the UAE’s rulers, its government, its policies, and any topic, whether social or political, that authorities may deem sensitive.

The December 2021 amendments to the penal code and Cybercrime Law further curtailed space for dissent. Article 174 of the penal code stipulates a minimum prison sentence of five years and a minimum fine of 100,000 dirhams (US$27,225) if the act takes place in “writing, speech, drawing or by statement or using any means of technology or through the media.” Two new provisions may directly affect the work of journalists based in the UAE. Article 178 provides for sentences of three to 15 years in prison for anyone who, without a license from the appropriate authorities, collects “information, data, objects, documents, designs, statistics or anything else for the purpose of handing them over to a foreign country or group or organization or entity, whatever its name or form, or to someone who works in its interest.” The Cybercrime Law contains an entirely new section entitled, “Spreading Rumors and False News.”

The Associated Press reported that during Expo 2020, officials repeatedly tried to force visiting journalists to sign forms that implied they could face criminal prosecution for not following their instructions on site.

Migrant Workers

The UAE’s kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers, preventing them from changing or leaving employers without permission. Those who left their employers without permission faced punishment for “absconding,” including fines, arrest, detention, and deportation, all without any due process guarantees. Many low-paid migrant workers were acutely vulnerable to forced labor. Research by Equidem documented forced labor practices, illegal recruitment fees, withholding of wages and benefits, and a lack of access to grievance mechanisms for the majority of the migrant workers engaged on projects at Expo 2020.

A new labor law, adopted in November 2021, came into force in February 2022, along with executive regulations for its enforcement. The changes include allowing for flexible, temporary, part time, and remote work, as well as explicit language prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination. It also allows workers to change employers within their probationary period.

Domestic workers who face a range of abuses were still excluded from the labor law. While a 2017 law on domestic workers guarantees some labor rights, it is weaker than the labor law and falls short of international standards.

Climate Change Policies and Impacts

As one of the world’s top 10 crude oil producers, the UAE heavily contributes to the climate crisis. The UAE has taken some positive steps to reduce emissions, including by increasing renewable energy capacity and removing some fossil fuel subsidies. Yet it maintains plans for significant fossil fuel use and production, both for export and domestic purposes. The UAE’s 2020 update to its national climate action plan, which pledges to reduce emissions by 23.5 percent by 2030, is “highly insufficient” to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The UAE is scheduled to host COP28, the international climate change conference, in November 2023.

The UAE is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change including from extreme heat, increased droughts, and sea level rise. Eighty-five percent of its population lives along coastlines, which are just several meters above sea level.

Women’s and Children’s Rights

The December 2021 penal code reintroduced the criminalization of consensual nonmarital sex, which had been dropped from the older law as part of amendments introduced in 2020. Unmarried couples who have a child face no less than two years in prison unless they marry and register their child, or they acknowledge the child and obtain a birth certificate and other official documents. Unmarried pregnant women face difficulties accessing prenatal health care and registering their children.

Under the Federal Personal Status Law, a woman needs a male guardian’s permission to marry. A married woman can lose her right to spousal maintenance from her husband if she refuses to have sexual relations with her husband without a lawful excuse. Men can unilaterally divorce their wives, whereas a woman must apply for a court order to obtain a divorce.

The UAE’s 2019 domestic violence law has some positive provisions, including protection orders. However, it defines domestic violence in a way that allows wide judicial discretion on what constitutes abuse by male guardians against their wives, female relatives, and children. It also prioritizes reconciliation over safety for the victim as it requires proposing “conciliation” between the victim and the abuser before any criminal action is pursued.

The UAE’s nationality law automatically guarantees UAE citizenship to children of Emirati men but not to children born to Emirati mothers and foreign fathers.

The government did not take steps to fulfil its 2018 commitment at its UN Universal Periodic Review to ban corporal punishment of children in all settings.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The 2021 penal code criminalizes sodomy with an adult male. It also continues to criminalize vaguely defined acts allowing authorities to arrest people for a wide range of behaviors, including public displays of affection, gender nonconforming expressions, and campaigns promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Article 411 of the penal code criminalizes a “flagrant indecent act” and any saying or act that offends public morals, with a punishment of a prison sentence or a fine of Dh1,000 to Dh100,000 ($270-$27,000). If it is a repeated offense, the punishment is at least three months’ imprisonment and a fine of Dh10,000 to Dh200,000 ($2,700-$54,000).

The UAE’s federal penal code punishes “any male disguised in female apparel and enters in this disguise a place reserved for women or where entry is forbidden, at that time, for other than women” with one year’s imprisonment, a fine of up to Dh10,000 ($2,700), or both. In practice, transgender women have been arrested under this law even in mixed-gender spaces.

In June, the government pressured Amazon to restrict items and search results related to LGBT people, symbols, and issues on its website in the United Arab Emirates.

Key International Actors

As a party to the armed conflict in Yemen, the United States provided logistical and intelligence support to Saudi and UAE-led coalition forces. An internal report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found serious gaps in US government oversight of how arms sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE are being used.