UAE continues crackdown on activists

AljazeeraBy Jenifer Fenton | Aljazeera – Sat, May 26, 2012

Doha, Qatar – In the past year, the United Arab Emirates has cracked down on dissenting voices in the country. Fifteen peaceful political activists are currently detained; all but two are members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association [al-Islah], which advocates for reform and for “adhering to Islamic principles”.  

Rights groups have called the arrests arbitrary. “These actions are reflective of a government that does not respect the rights of its citizens to freedom of association and expression,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release .

The chairman of al-Islah, Sultan bin Kayed al-Qasimi, the cousin of the ruler of the northern emirate Ras al-Khaimah, is among those held.

Al-Islah has been active in the UAE for decades, and as many as 20,000 people living in the Emirates could be associated with them. They have reportedly adopted the thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood, but are not officially linked to them.

The activists have not been violent or aggressive in their demands for political reform, which they see as a basic right, according to prominent UAE rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who was found guilty in 2011 of insulting the Emirati leadership but later pardoned. UAE authorities “are taking preemptive measures to shut down any possible calls for reform, especially from this group because it is the most organised group in the UAE”, said Mansoor, who is not a member of al Islah.

The UAE government is nervous about groups that use Islam for political reasons, according to Sultan al-Qassemi, an Emirati commentator on Arab affairs. “I think to a degree the society is weary of them,” he said. “It’s not just the fact that they’re Islamists. The whole country is Islamic.” He also noted that political Islamists were the most organised group in the UAE, but “they never really come out with a political mantra – they are very ambiguous”.

Some of the homes of the detained men, like that of Ahmed al-Tabour al-Nuaimi, have been searched, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR). On the day of his arrest, from 10pm until 3am, inspectors from the security services of Ras al-Khaimah raided the family dwelling. 

Al-Nuaimi was among 133 Emiratis who signed a petition in 2011 to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the supreme council of the seven emirates, asking for the country to have direct elections. The group also asked that the Federal National Council (FNC)  be granted legislative powers; the body is currently only an advisory one.

FNC elections were held in autumn 2011, but not all Emiratis were allowed to vote; only about 130,000 voters – reportedly handpicked by the seven emirs – could cast a ballot. They were also only voting for 20 FNC members. The other 20 members were appointed by the state.

Empowering the parliament is something the government must do, said al-Qassemi. “So that the parliament is a force to be reckoned with, it is a force that brings people together, it is a force that deals with political movement in the country.” But the government is very cautious, and “they will not empower the parliament so long as the Islamists are willing to grab at opportunities”, he said.

Others being held include a former judge, Ahmed al-Zaabi. Then there are six men whom the UAE stripped of their citizenship in late 2011. The six are all reportedly members of al-Islah, and most were naturalised in the 1970s. The UAE’s move to revoke their nationality was in response to “acts posing a threat to the state’s security and safety”, according to the state news agency.

They were arrested after they refused to seek another nationality. Another detained activist, Ahmed Ghaith al-Suwaidi, was also told he was losing his citizenship, according to GFHR. The men’s identity papers have been confiscated, leaving them essentially stateless, as the men are not dual nationals. Their lawyers are challenging the government’s actions.

Al-Zaabi was granted bail, but has not been released. It is believed that he is being held by UAE state security, according to Mansoor. One of the other men, Saleh Al Dhufairi, who was active on Twitter, was arrested for “provoking strife”, says GCHR. Al-Dhufairi’s comments on Twitter were critical of the UAE’s move to arrest and deport Syrians who had peacefully protested in front of the Syrian consulate in Dubai, according to Human Rights Watch.

Independent political activity in the Emirates is highly restricted, and is essentially banned in practice. Since the start of the Arab uprisings, Emirati authorities have paid great attention to citizens and organisations calling for political reforms and freedom of expression. 

The UAE is a federation of seven states, which makes for a “very sensitive mechanism of power”, al-Qassemi said. “Some rulers are more conservative than others and some of them are more… liberal. … It is a very difficult country to manage.”

The first action taken by the government was in April 2011, when the government dissolved the elected board of the Jurists’ Association, a prominent civil rights organisation, and the Teachers’ Association. The boards of both were replaced with state appointees. “Any active organisation in the UAE, if it really does a good job and works well, they [the UAE authorities] shut it down or they dismantle it and bring in their own people,” Mansoor said.

Mansoor is one of the UAE5, a reference to the five Emiratis accused of and found guilty of “publicly insutling” the country’s leadership. The proceedings against the men were heavily criticised by international rights groups. Amnesty called the UAE5 “prisoners of conscience”. The men were pardoned by the president for reasons that are not clear. Mansoor is free, but he is not allowed to work and does not have his passport.

Ahmed Abdulkhaeq, one of the UAE5, has been rearrested. Abdulkhaeq is not a member of al Islah and he has not been active in political debate recently, according to Mansoor. He called his family on Thursday to tell them that UAE officials planned to deport him to the Comoros islands, off Madagascar.

Earlier this year, UAE authorities also shut down two international organisations, the National Democratic Institute – linked to the US – and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, linked to Germany. Both promote political debate.

In the runup to the FNC elections, rulers in the Emirates urged UAE citizens to take part in broad and active political engagement. But in practice, they are making only gradual – if any – real changes.

“They really don’t want to go on the democracy fast track. They are taking this step by step. That is very frustrating to many of us,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an respected Emirati professor of political science.

The arrest of so many activists at one time is unusual in the UAE, he added. “But stability is important, probably more important than anything else.” The rulers do not want to tamper with stability. “They think democracy is divisive, and it sure is. And they don’t want to take the chance.”