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Authors and Nobel laureates call on UAE to free human rights defenders and give them books, during Hay Festival Abu Dhabi

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7 months 14 hours

Authors and Nobel laureates call on UAE to free human rights defenders and give them books, during Hay Festival Abu Dhabi

Over 60 civil society organisations, writers, personalities and Nobel laureates have appealed to the authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to free detained human rights defenders, during the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, which ran from 25 to 28 February 2020. 

The joint letter was signed by Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka and Ahmed Galai, as well as Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, poets Serge Pey and Pierre Joris, who all participated in events at last week’s Hay Festival Abu Dhabi. Further prominent signatories include intellectual Noam Chomsky and British author and actor Stephen Fry, the Hay Festival’s President. The letter calls for the release of Ahmed Mansoor, a poet and engineer, Sorbonne academic Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, and human rights lawyers Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken and Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansoori

During the Hay Festival, some signatories to the letter and the Festival’s Director took the opportunity to call for freedom of expression to be respected. Not surprisingly, none of them were quoted in the national media. During her talk on 27 February, Ahdaf Soueif mentioned prisoners of conscience, saying, “I speak of people who cannot take part in the Festival, who have lost their liberty simply because of their insistence on their right to freedom of expression and to their support for the principles of human rights.” Soueif, whose own nephew, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, is currently imprisoned in Egypt, went on to explain: “I came here from Egypt where we have an unprecedented attack on human rights… and where I have a very personal stake in what is happening to human rights and the rule of law… But I don’t know that you need to have such a personal stake in order to be sensitive to the condition of other people.” 

She emphasised that “it’s very important that cultural events are not used to paper over the injustices …but are actually used to highlight their case,” specifically naming Ahmed Mansoor and Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, who she noted “is in prison, a few kilometres from where we are now.”

She continued, “I’m sure you all know that there is a letter circulating for people to sign, and that people are hoping that …the conditions that make it possible for Hay Festival to be in Abu Dhabi will make it clear how unnecessary and unproductive it is to hold people in prison ... because they stepped up to their responsibilities as human beings and as citizens to speak up. Until this time comes, I hope that at least people will take comfort – as I know that people in Egypt take comfort – from the fact they are remembered and that people send them messages of support and books.”

"Whenever I read in prison, I would travel not only outside my cell, but around the world and through time,” says Zaynab Al-Khawaja, who was imprisoned repeatedly in Bahrain between 2013 and 2016 and now works for the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), a co-organiser of the open letter. “My books, one of which was Ahdaf Soueif’s "Map of Love" are what kept me strong in prison, and what transformed my experience from disappearing in the graveyard of the living, to a place where I had a chance to read and reflect and learn. To a prisoner, books are windows that give life and hope to a place that tries to take both from you.” 

Another participant and signatory, Ahmed Galai, a member of Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2015, said, “Thanks to the revolution, the Tunisian people recovered their despoiled rights, notably the right to freedom of expression. As a human rights defender, I unconditionally support all people deprived of their rights for having peacefully expressed their opinions. I have brought my solidarity here to human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor and all the other prisoners of opinion, and I call on the UAE authorities to respect these international approaches and free them immediately. I urge the authorities to take bold steps based on a human rights approach.”

"What generates history is the axis between power on one hand and freedom on the other," said signatory Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel Laureate, during his talk on 25 February.

“The Hay Festival is considered a leading platform for free expression. The UAE, on the other hand, is not; one need only look at the arrest of Ahmed Mansoor and his treatment in prison, where he sleeps on the floor in an isolation cell simply for demanding to be treated like a human being,” said Sofia Kaltenbrunner, coordinator of the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE), another co-organisers of the letter.

Khalid Ibrahim, GCHR Executive Director, said, “If the authorities really want to promote tolerance, their first step should be the immediate release all those imprisoned purely for voicing their opinions, including GCHR’s Board member Ahmed Mansoor, a father of four. We thank all those at the Hay Festival who are helping to highlight the conditions of imprisoned human rights defenders so they don’t have to continuously go on hunger strike to have their voices heard.”

The joint letter notes, “With the world’s eyes on the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, we urge the Emirati government to consider using this opportunity to unconditionally release our jailed friends and colleagues, and in the interim, to at least allow prisoners of conscience to receive books and reading materials, to have regular visits with family, to be allowed outside of their isolation cells to visit the canteen or go outside in the sun. In particular, we ask that Ahmed Mansoor be given a bed and a mattress so that he no longer has to sleep on the floor, and that prison officials cease punishing him for public appeals that are made on his behalf.”

The letter, which was published on the ICFUAE and GCHR websites, was not accessible to participants at the festival as the two websites are blocked in the UAE.

In its coverage of the joint letter about the Festival, the Guardian writes: “There has long been a strain between the UAE government and its human rights record, and the international cultural events held there.”

It’s very easy for cultural events to become smokescreens,” concluded Soueif. “I think Hay is too big and too smart and too committed to free expression to be used in this way, and I really hope that its presence here will weigh in the balance of openness, diversity and respect for human rights.” 

During the opening, Hay Festival Director Peter Florence talked about being a voice for the voiceless and the “magic line of empathy.” He told GCHR that "The Hay Festival is committed to amplifying voices who speak truth to power,” and that holding it in Abu Dhabi provides an opportunity to support human rights and a culture of freedom of expression.

The letter concludes: “We ask the authorities to improve their prison conditions as a sign of goodwill and respect for people who wish to organise and participate in events in the UAE, such as the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi or the upcoming Expo 2020 Dubai. By doing so, the UAE would demonstrate that the Hay Festival is an opportunity to back up its promise of tolerance with actions that include the courageous contributors to freedom of expression who live in the country.”

Supporters are encouraged to send books and letters in English or Arabic to:

  • Ahmed Mansoor, Al Sadr prison, Al Rahba, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
  • Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, Al-Razeen maximum security prison, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, Al-Razeen maximum security prison, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansoori, Al-Razeen maximum security prison, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Photo credits: @hayfestarabic, Ahmed Galai

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