This month marks six years since the arbitrary arrest of Emirati academic Dr Nasser bin Ghaith. His case continues to cause outrage among the international human rights community amid reports of his declining health caused by inhumane detention conditions and deliberate medical negligence.
On 18 August 2015, bin Ghaith, a distinguished economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris Sorbonne University, was forcibly disappeared from his work place and held in a secret location for eight months, were he was subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Although he raised the complaint of being tortured by beatings and sleep-deprivation in front of the judge during his first two hearings in April and May 2016, no investigations were made and the allegations dismissed. Until these hearings, bin Ghaith was not even informed of the charges brought against him and he had no access to a lawyer.
In March 2017, the prominent human rights defender was sentenced to ten years in prison for the expression of his conscientiously held beliefs.
In protest over his conviction, in April 2017, bin Ghaith went on hunger strike for over 40 days, demanding his immediate release. The UAE authorities responded to this by transferring him from al-Sadr to al-Razeen prison, a maximum-security facility that holds predominantly government critics. Notorious for its repressive conditions, inmates regularly report instances of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of warders.
Since being detained at al-Razeen, the authorities have reportedly subjected bin Ghaith to all-manners of mistreatment including: beatings, solitary confinement, the suspension of family visitation rights and denial of access to adequate medical care.
In response, bin Ghaith engaged in two further (liquid only) hunger strikes in 2018. The authorities responded to these by reportedly subjecting bin Ghaith to beatings and death threats. As a result of the hunger strikes and mistreatment, his health is said to have deteriorated rapidly – despite this, the authorities continue to deny him access to adequate medical care.
The charges brought against bin Ghaith related to his peaceful activities on social media, including comments he made on Twitter criticising the Egyptian government as well as his unfair trial related to his first arrest in 2011. In what was known as the “UAE 5” case, bin Ghait as well as four other Emiratis were tried on grounds of comments they made in an online discussion forum. All five were designated as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, being unlawfully prosecuted for acting on their right to freedom of expression, and thereby violating international human rights law. Ignoring the right to freedom of speech, bin Ghaith’s tweets were misrepresented as providing “false information” and as “committing a hostile act against a foreign state” under the cybercrime law and UAE penal code. According to Amnesty International, who reviewed his tweets, none of the comments he made contained hatred or violence, underlining the arbitrariness of his arrest.
Since its inception in 2012, the cybercrime law has been abused by the UAE government to arrest anyone posting dissenting opinions online, including on social media. In many cases, as with bin Ghaith, charges are made not only based on the cybercrime law, but also in conjunction with other laws such as the anti-terrorism law. Having been invited to speak at a conference by the Emirates Ummah Party, bin Ghaith held a speech on Islamic economy in November 2013. In 2014, however, the party was declared a “terrorist organisation” by the government, resulting in bin Ghaith being charged under the anti-terrorism law although he had no formal affiliation with the party. Both the cybercrime and the anti-terrorism law are so vaguely worded that even just expressing one’s opinion can be interpreted as a crime, restricting the right to freedom of expression drastically.