Torture and Ill-Treatment in the UAE
In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on credible allegations of what appears to be the systematic use of torture and ill-treatment of UAE detainees, including political activists and human rights defenders. Various international human rights organisations, such as Reprieve and Gulf Centre for Human Rights, have released reports using the testimonies of former detainees to document the scale of mistreatment at the hands of the country’s state security apparatus. The forms of torture mentioned in the reports range from physical beatings, psychological intimidation, verbal abuse, sexual threats and assault to prolonged periods of solitary confinement and even medical negligence.
It is difficult to compile extensive statistics on the issue of torture and ill-treatment due to the secrecy of the flow of data and the impunity with which the state security services appear to operate. One of the first reports with statistical data on torture in UAE prisons was written by Reprieve in 2013, and documents accounts from 124 detainees inside Dubai Central Jail. The report found that 75% of detainees have been subjected to torture and abuse including death threats, threats of rape, electrocution and prolonged beatings.
Reprieve’s findings are consistent with statements from letters written by defendants of the infamous UAE 94 case, which surfaced in 2013. In 2011, a group of 130 prominent human rights defenders, political activists, and academics signed a petition to call for democratic reforms in the UAE. Consequently, at least 64 of them have been arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared, and many of them have been tortured or ill-treated for months during their pre-trial detention. In 22 notes that have been smuggled out of jail, they described the routine torture practices of UAE state security officers, further corroborating the ordeal of the detainees and the extent of systematic torture in UAE prisons. A detailed report by Gulf Centre for Human Rights describes accounts of 57 of the UAE 94 defendants, while also explicitly naming 13 perpetrators. At least 24 of the detainees stated that in addition to their cruel and inhumane treatment, they were tortured in order to confess to crimes they did not commit, which was then used against them in court.
Torture includes the infliction of severe pain and suffering, physically as well as psychologically. Detainees are severely beaten, forced to stand for prolonged periods, deprived of sleep, and deliberately chained so that more pain is inflicted. Guards pull out their fingernails or put them in the trunk of cars, while petrol is leaking through the air ventilation. Solitary confinement, which can lead to insomnia, confusion, hallucinations and psychosis, is regularly used as a punishment. These solitary confinement cells are hot, dark, and as narrow as a coffin, with no ventilation.
Other examples of the cruel and degrading conditions in the prisons include the deprivation of clean water, food, a bed to sleep on, sunlight and fresh air. Due to the lack of ventilation, the cells are unbearably hot and often windowless. Loudspeakers play noisy music, even at night time, on a level that causes ear inflammation and panic attacks to the detainees. Stripped of all their underwear, prisoners have to undergo humiliating inspections and are often sexually harassed or threatened to be sexually abused by guards. As a consequence of the unhygienic conditions of the prisons, diseases spread easily and the health of prisoners deteriorates rapidly, but there is also no health care available.
The prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment is included in the UAE’s constitution, which states in Article 6 that “no man shall be subjected to torture or other indignity” and in Article 28 that “physical and mental abuse of an accused person shall be prohibited.” However, testimonies from former detainees like those mentioned above have shown that authorities systematically torture and ill-treat prisoners.
In addition to the provisions in the UAE constitution, the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment is firmly embedded in international law and human rights frameworks. The ban on torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is enshrined in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In July 2012, the UAE acceded to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment (CAT).
However, upon accession the UAE issued the following declaration, questioning the definition of torture by stating that “lawful sanctions applicable under national law, or pain or suffering arising from or associated with or incidental to these lawful sanctions, do not fall under the concept of ‘torture’ defined in article 1 of this Convention.” This reservation raised doubts immediately as to the UAE’s commitment to the purpose and aims of the convention.
To date, the UAE has still not ratified the optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). The OPCAT is a torture prevention mechanism that assists in the implementation of and builds on the CAT, and helps States meet their obligations under CAT. In July 2013 at the UN’s human rights review in Geneva, 6 states recommended that the UAE ratify the Optional Protocol. The UAE replied that it would look into the matter but, as of now, there have been no attempts to ratify the Protocol since the recommendation was first made.
As the UAE has ratified the CAT, it is obligated under international law to conduct an independent, impartial and prompt investigation into credible allegations of torture, and a systematic review of interrogation methods and practices, as well as custody procedures. However, the UAE has consistently failed to investigate such allegations and has denied international monitoring bodies access to the country or trials.
Similarly, the use of confessions or other evidence extracted under torture is prohibited under international law, however, these confessions are regularly used in trials against human rights defenders or political activists. Given the scale of the allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, it is vital that the international community puts pressure on the country to honour its commitments to both domestic and international law.
The case of David Haigh
Despite the legal frameworks in place, there has been a catalogue of evidence from present and former detainees detailing a wide range of human rights abuses that contravene both international and national laws. One recent high profile case was that of David Haigh, the ex-Leeds United managing director. Haigh was arrested in Dubai in 2012, accused of fraud, and later charged with “cyber slander”. He spent 23 months in detention.
After his release, Haigh spoke of the inhumane conditions he was forced to carry out his sentence in. He spoke of having experienced 5 serious episodes of physical of abuse, including being beaten, forced to stand in stress positions for long periods, and threats of sexual abuse. The abuse and torture began when he was first taken to a police station and continued throughout his detention.
He claimed that while detained he had also witnessed the torture and abuse of other detainees on a regular basis, including the use of taserings and beatings. Haigh said that he had witnessed horrific violence carried out against other inmates, including a Pakistani man, alleging that “three or four policemen were torturing him, standing on his throat, tasering him, using a cattle prod against him. It was the most shocking thing of my life, and I will never forget it." Haigh’s treatment at the hand of the UAE’s security forces echoes that of other foreign and Emirati nationals.
- International Center for Justice and Human Rights’ report on the prison conditions in the UAE: http://www.ic4jhr.org/en/activites/reports/519-uae-report-on-the-prison-conditions-in-the-united-arab-emirates.html
- Reprieve’s report on torture in Dubai Central Jail: http://www.reprieve.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2013_10_28_INT-UAE-Torture-Report-final.pdf
- Detailed report by the Gulf Center for Human Rights on the cases of torture from the UAE 94 trial:
- More information on the UAE 94 case:
- More information on David Haigh’s case: