The UAE must release all political prisoners before hosting COP28

May 31, 2023

In this op-ed originally published by Newsweek, our Human Rights Officer Falah Sayed and Emirati activist Jenan AlMarzooqi explain how the UAE is trying to sweep its appalling human rights record under the rug and present itself as "respectful of human rights" by hosting COP28.

Dr Sultan Al Jaber (COP28 UAE President-Designate) - Arctic Circle, Abu Dhabi, January 18 2023 © Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

By Falah Sayed & Jenan AlMarzooqi; originally published on Newsweek.

On May 8, the human rights record of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was assessed for the fourth time at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. The UAE delegation tried to paint an extremely positive picture, claiming that institutions in the country "respect human rights" and that they "strive to preach a culture of peace, tolerance, coexistence and dialogue." The more than 50 political prisoners currently being held in UAE prisons tell a very different story.

All of these political prisoners have been detained arbitrarily and most of them far beyond their initial prison sentence. Their only demand was to ask for democratic reform and a sense of equality within and before the law in their country.

Some of these detainees include well known prisoners of conscience Nasser bin Ghaith, Ahmed Mansour, and Mohammed Al-Roken. However, aside from these famous cases, there are numerous other human rights defenders in the UAE who were also detained for simply exercising their civil and political rights, but their stories have gained less notoriety.

Abdulsalam Al Marzooqi was one of the 94 defendants that appeared before the federal Supreme Court during the infamous "UAE 94" mass trial in 2012. This trial was held following a campaign of mass arrests against 133 academics, lawyers, and students who had signed a petition asking the UAE president and federal Supreme Council for democratic reform. All the signatories were peaceful Emiratis, who were then falsely accused of trying to overthrow the government simply for expressing a desire to achieve democratic reforms in their home country. Of these 94, 69 were sentenced to heavy prison sentences following a grossly unfair trial.

Authorities disappeared Al Marzooqi for 21 days following his arrest in July 2012. Since then, he has been tortured, held in solitary confinement, and now, even after serving his 10-year prison sentence, remains in detention. Members of his family have not heard from him for over five months and the last time he had a visit was in 2020. The status of his well-being is completely unknown. The family themselves have also been subjected to reprisals by the Emirati authorities. They have had their bank accounts and pension payments frozen, his daughter has received vicious attacks online, and all his children have been stripped of their Emirati citizenship.

The continued imprisonment of these peaceful dissidents, the abuses they have been subjected to while in detention, as well as the reprisals against their families is contrary to international human rights law and against the UAE's own laws. Civic space is virtually non-existent in the UAE.

Despite this, over the past few years, Western countries including the U.S., U.K. and many European countries like France, have been more inclined to cooperate with the UAE while ignoring the grave human rights abuses perpetrated by its government. Relations are so normalized with the UAE that it has been entrusted with hosting the COP28 climate conference in November.

Meanwhile, the authorities keep extending the detentions of individuals who have dared to put their life and liberty at risk in order to fight for a better future for all Emiratis. Human Rights Watch recently published a report highlighting the plight of 51 prisoners that had their sentences extended indefinitely, grossly disregarding guarantees of a fair trial.

Prior to their U.N. review, on May 1, over 40 human rights NGOs signed a petition to the UAE government asking for all political prisoners to be released. The petition also shed light on how Emirati authorities continue to block U.N. experts from conducting in-country research and visiting prisons and detention facilities.

Over 100 U.N. member states took part in the review in Geneva. While much of the language used by delegates was fraternal, 323 recommendations were made as to how the UAE can improve its human rights record. Belgium, the United States, and the Netherlands all explicitly called on the UAE to release prisoners who are currently being held on arbitrary grounds and beyond their prison sentences. Switzerland, the U.S., Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Czechia, Finland, Greece, Honduras, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom all called for a guarantee to the right of freedom of expression. You would not expect a country that "respects human rights" to receive such a high number of recommendations during a human rights review.

The UAE sees this review and COP28 as another opportunity for them to whitewash their abysmal human rights record. As the world's lens is focused on the UAE, the plight of political prisoners should not be forgotten. Every opportunity must be used to push for the release of all Emiratis who have been arbitrarily detained simply for expressing their opinion. The leaders of democratic countries who have not wavered in supporting the UAE would do well to question why the country's best minds continue to languish in prison with no end in sight.

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