ICFUAE and other rights groups call for release of Osama al-Najjar
March 17, 2018 marks one year since Osama Al Najjar completed his three-year prison sentence in the UAE, yet the well-known blogger and human rights defender remains detained against his will to date.
In light of Al Najjar’s continuing administrative detention, we, the undersigned human rights organisations, call upon the international community to put pressure on the Emirati authorities to ensure his immediate release, and to remind the state of its obligations under international human rights law to protect human rights defenders and to respect their right to freedom of expression.
Osama Al Najjar’s arrest and detention
Osama Al Najjar is the son of Husain Al Najjar, one of the defendants sentenced in the “UAE 94” trial – the largest mass political trial in the history of the UAE against 94 political activists accused of having “plotted to overthrow the government”.
Following his father’s arrest, Al Najjar became active on Twitter defending the UAE 94 and disseminating information on the unfair nature of their trial. He also met with Gabriela Knaul, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, during her visit to the UAE between January 28 and February 5, 2014.
As a result of his public advocacy, Al Najjar was arrested in March 2014. He was forcibly taken to a State Security secret detention centre in Abu Dhabi, where he was detained incommunicado, interrogated, and tortured over a period of four days.
Al Najjar later informed his brother that he was interrogated over his activity on Twitter as well as his meeting with the Special Rapporteur. In this context, his case was raised in the 2014 report of the UN Secretary-General on the subject of reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN.
Al Najjar was denied access to a lawyer for the first six months of his detention up until his first trial hearing before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi – a specialised court which has jurisdiction over matters of state security including terrorism.
On October 25, 2014, Al Najjar was charged with “belonging to the government-banned Al Islah party”, “instigating hatred against the state via Twitter”, “designing and running a website harmful to UAE institutions”, and “presenting inaccurate information to foreign organisations”. He was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 500,000 Emirati dirham (approx. 136,000 USD), while the court also ordered that all his social media accounts be permanently closed.
Al Najjar served his full three-year prison term on March 17, 2017, yet the Public Prosecution decided to extend his detention, arguing that Al Najjar still posed a “threat” to society. The court ordered Al Najjar’s transfer to a “counselling centre” under article 40 of Federal Law No. 7/2014 on Combating Terrorism Offences, which states that “[i]f a person appears to pose a terrorist threat, he/she shall be sent to a counselling centre, by virtue of a judgment issued by the Court and upon a request of the prosecution”. The duration of the extension of Al Najjar’s detention in the counselling centre was not specified by the court.
On March 30, 2017, in light of the extension of Osama Al Najjar’s detention, Alkarama and International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR ) requested that the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD ) urge the UAE authorities to ensure his immediate and unconditional release. The organisations also requested that the WGAD take a clear stance on counselling centres, a type of detention facility to which terror suspects are being transferred against their will despite having served their sentence. Their prolonged detention is based on an administrative decision by the authorities as opposed to a judicial decision, thus denying individuals the right to challenge the legality of their detention.
The UAE’s crackdown on dissent
On March 16, 2018 – one year on from the onset of Al Najjar’s administrative detention – Alkarama and ICJHR raised Al Najjar’s case with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, requesting that he intervene with the authorities to ensure Al Najjar’s immediate and unconditional release.
Al Najjar’s detention reflects a broader trend in the UAE in which a restrictive legal framework is used to prosecute peaceful human rights defenders and those who criticise the authorities, shrinking civil society space.
During the UAE’s January 2018 Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council, several Member States urged the UAE to amend its legal framework to bring it in conformity with international standards and to ensure that it is not used to stifle dissent.
In fact, the one-year anniversary of Al Najjar’s administrative detention falls within days of the anniversary of the arbitrary detention of Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights defender who was arrested on March 20, 2017 as a result of his peaceful activism. Prior to his arrest, Mansoor was the only active human rights defender operating from within the country. His arrest represented the authorities’ total silencing of civil society actors operating within the country.
In light of the above information, we call upon the international community to urge the Emirati authorities to respect their obligations under international human rights law by putting an immediate end to the arbitrary and administrative detention of Osama Al Najjar.
The Alkarama Foundation
The International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE)
International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR)