Arbitrary Detentions, Enforced Disappearances, and Torture in the UAE
The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that the UAE “is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights at home and around the world.” However, human rights are grossly violated in the UAE on a regular basis. Not only is the right to freedom of speech highly restricted with all media content heavily censored and online activities monitored, but even raising a dissenting opinion can also lead to imprisonment.
Arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances are large-scale political tools of intimidation used by governments to silence activists, political opposition and even human rights defenders. These unlawful arrests violate the right to liberty and security, which is something granted to everyone by Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition to repressing political opposition and dissenting voices, the threat of such methods spreads fear, insecurity and repression within society as a whole. Human rights defenders and political activists are particularly at risk of being arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared.
Background and Legal Framework
Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile,” which means that arbitrary detention is a violation of international human rights law. Illegal grounds for arrest, not informing the victim of the reasons for the arrest, and not bringing the victim before a judge promptly are all conditions that render detention arbitrary, as defined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UAE has so far refused to sign this treaty.
Victims of arbitrary detention are arrested by police or undercover security agents without a warrant and taken to secret locations whilst blindfolded. In a report about detainees in Dubai Central Jail, human rights organisation Reprieve found that 96% did not have a lawyer present when initially questioned by the police, whilst 95% were denied legal representation throughout the entirety of the interrogation process. The detainees are often held incommunicado, which means they are not allowed any visits, phone calls, or any contact with the outside world. Not only is access to legal support denied but also access to medical care - both of which are essential to victims of arbitrary detention, who face a greatly increased risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
For example, in 2014 five Libyan nationals - Salim Alaradi, Kamal and Mohamed Eldarat, Adel Rajab Beleid Nasef, and Moad Mohamed Al Hashmi - were arbitrarily detained for nearly two years. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture stated that there was credible evidence of these individuals being subjected to torture by UAE authorities during their detention.
If prisoners do eventually receive a trial, this is often conducted in a grossly unfair manner. A trial is declared as unfair if the defendant does not know the charges and did not have access to legal support pre-trial, if evidence is withheld or evidence extracted under torture is used against the defendant, and if access to the court is denied to family members as well as to international media or human rights organisations.
A similar form of unlawful detention is enforced disappearance. When people are forcibly disappeared they are taken directly off the street or from their homes by state officials. No explanation is given as to why they are being detained or where they are being taken, and they are unable to notify their families or a lawyer. People who are forcibly disappeared are kept in a secret location for an unspecified amount of time. They are held for weeks or even months under interrogation and forced into signing confessions for crimes they did not commit.
Similarly to arbitrary detention, the victims are neither allowed to contact their families nor receive legal or medical support. As a result of this, their whereabouts remain unknown and they are unlikely to receive support of any kind. They are often tortured or ill-treated and endure ongoing physical and psychological abuse. In 2010, the UN treaty on the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance came into force. The convention aims at preventing enforced disappearances worldwide. So far the UAE has declined to sign or ratify this treaty.
Both arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances not only affect the victims but also their families, as they are left without any information about their missing family member. This inevitably leads to a huge sense of insecurity among family members of those that have been detained, who worry about the health of the victim, and question when or if they will ever return. Searching for the missing person can put the relatives in great danger, which can in some cases result in their own enforced disappearance or arbitrary detention.
Cases of Arbitrary Detention and Enforced Disappearances
Human rights defenders, political activists and bloggers are at high risk of being arbitrarily detained or even forcibly disappeared in the UAE. 97% of trials in the country are linked to freedom of speech or freedom of religion, which means that there is systematic repression of dissenting opinions by the government. Many bloggers and online activists have been arrested for harmless and peaceful tweets, which authorities claim to have insulted the government or to have threatened national security.
Online activist Osama al-Najjar was arrested on 17th of March 2017 following tweets criticising his father’s unjust imprisonment, who is a human rights defender himself. Al-Najjar was kept in solitary confinement in an undisclosed location, where he was tortured and ill-treated for four days, without contact with his family or a lawyer. Following a grossly unfair trial in November of the same year, al-Najjar was sentenced to three years in prison and forced to pay a huge fine. Even though he completed his sentence in March 2017, UAE authorities refused to release al-Najjar and he is currently being held in a ‘counselling centre.’
Not only Emirati citizens are victims of arbitrary detention in the UAE, but also citizens from all over the world, as in the above case of the five Libyans. There have even been cases of British citizens being arbitrarily detained. Nico Consari, a British expat businessman, was arbitrarily detained in Dubai on allegations of fraud that have never been confirmed. In 2015, Consari was charged with misappropriating funds from a company he never worked for. With no criminal evidence levelled against him, Consari is yet to be officially charged or prosecuted by UAE courts, but the prosecutor has detained him under the justification of 'police investigation' for 1.5 years. He was released in June 2017, but remains on conditional bail.
In many cases, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance are linked together. On 15th of February 2015, Mariam, Asma, and Alyazzyah al-Suwaidi were summoned to Abu Dhabi police station, after tweeting demands to release their brother, Dr Issa Al Suwaidi, a prisoner of conscience. After the summons, the Suwaidi sisters were not seen or heard of for 3 months. During this time, they were denied access to legal help and contact with their family members, and no official charge has been brought against them. This case also shows how UAE authorities target whole families to suppress political activism.
- Arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment:
International Center for Justice and Human Rights, annual report 2017 (refer to Part 2.1) http://www.ic4jhr.org/en/activites/reports/632-annual-report-2017-events-of-2016.html
- Arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of detainees:
Human Rights Watch, annual report 2017:
- More information on the case of Nico Consari
- More information on the case of the Suwaidi sisters