Democracy Activist’s Hunger Strike Exposes UAE Tolerance Charade

Ahmed Mansoor

by Joe Stork

Ahmed Mansoor, the United Arab Emirates’s most prominent human rights activist, has been on a hunger strike for the last three weeks to protest abysmal prison conditions and the flagrantly unjust trial that put him there. He has been held in solitary confinement for most if not all of the period since his initial arrest more than two years ago.

Local sources who cannot be identified for reasons of personal safety told the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) that Mansoor has been subjected to “terrible conditions,” isolated in a cell without a bed or water, and without access to needed medical care, and that he is in “bad shape.” Persons familiar with his case believe he is being held in Al Sadr prison in Abu Dhabi. His prison conditions at the very least violate the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Mandela Rules. The UAE is one of the wealthiest countries on earth, so the abysmal prison conditions Mansoor is facing cannot be for any lack of resources.

The extent of his hunger strike—whether he is taking water or any other liquid, for instance—is not known. What is known is a cause of great concern for his well-being, given the apparent determination of UAE authorities to punish him severely for his outspoken advocacy of democratic rights.

Mansoor  has been in custody since March 20, 2017, when security forces conducted a predawn raid on his home, where he lived with his wife and four young children. After more than a year in which Mansoor was held in solitary confinement in an unknown location, the UAE’s Federal Appeal Court’s State Security Chamber on May 29, 2018 sentenced him to 10 years in prison and fined him the equivalent of more than a quarter of a million dollars after convicting him of “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leaders” under the country’s 2012 cybercrimes law. Little is known about the details of the trial, which was closed to observers. He was convicted on charges that manifestly violate international human rights law protecting free expression. The court acquitted him of the charge that he had conspired with a terrorist organization. Mansoor appealed to the Federal Supreme Court State Security Chamber, which confirmed his conviction and sentence on December 31, 2018.

This is the same UAE that in November 2018 hosted the first-ever World Tolerance Summit, claiming that “the UAE is a shining example of inclusion and tolerance.” Needless to say, the summit’s website makes no mention of the authorities’ zero tolerance for any manner of peaceful criticism or dissent.

Mansoor founded the online discussion forum in 2009. He and others in March 2011 initiated a petition signed by 132 Emiratis that called on the ruling Al Nahyan family to give all UAE citizens the right to vote and vest the Federal National Council with the capacity to initiate and not merely discuss legislation. The next month, authorities responded by arresting Mansoor and four others (“the UAE 5”) for insulting UAE leaders and using the now-banned UAE Hewar discussion forum. The Federal Supreme Court convicted the five on November 27, 2011, sentencing Mansoor to three years in prison and the others to two years each.

The next day, President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan pardoned all five but did not expunge their criminal records, making it impossible for them to get the “certificate of good conduct” necessary for employment, travel abroad, and other civil rights.

Prior to his arrest in 2017, Ahmed Mansoor was the last remaining human rights defender speaking publicly in the UAE, following the arrest and jailing of dozens of others. He was nearly alone in 2012-2013 calling attention to the arbitrary detention and abuse in custody of scores of persons affiliated with Islah, a peaceful Islamist reform group established in 1974, including two well-known Emirati human rights defense lawyers, Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed Mansouri. In the years since 2011, Mansoor was the target of vicious social media threats and inflammatory accusations, including by persons and groups linked to security forces. On two occasions in September 2012, he was physically assaulted by unknown persons who appeared to be Emiratis.

In 2015, Mansoor received the Martin Ennals Award, an annual prize honoring an outstanding human rights defender. He is a member of the advisory boards of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division.

Joe Stork is chair of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights advisory board and former deputy director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch.

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  1. Author’s critical flaw is imposing his political values on others who do not share his world view. Demanding that deeply hierarchical tribal cultures based on hereditary, gender and other defining customs/beliefs somehow just become America is beyond insensitive. It is dumb and self-defeating. Abu Dhabi faces the challenge of suddenly emerging into the world of 21st social media access from an incredibly isolated, desert tribal life centered on survival. But do not think for one moment these tribal cultures are not inclusive or allow citizen access to leaders. It is in fact far easier for any citizen of UAE to go in and sit with the Ruler than you or me trying to see our President! I have done it there many times. And good tribal leaders spend a Lot of time listening to their people.
    Oppression is bad. Denial of basic rights is wrong. But much of the rest is essential context the author seems not to take into sufficient consideration.

  2. Charley’s critical flaw is imposing hierarchical tribal politics on a citizen of UAE who do not share his view on how UAE should be governed. Demanding freedom of speech and freedom of thought are universal basic human rights.

    Abu Dhabi emirate is an absolute monarchy in the world of 21st century. Stop this fallacious special pleading argument. Kuwait is a a neighboring coastal country in the Gulf region with a similar tribal cultural that suddenly emerged like Abu Dhabi (and UAE in general); but Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy and the citizens have voting rights to a national assembly with actual legislative power.

    Just because, in theory, a citizen can access the ruler that does not mean it is an easy task to do or even a fair practical way of solving problems. Well, one does not need to meet their President to go about their life, if there is a uncorrupt system of governance and the basic separation of powers! And even if one does finally get to meet the ruler that does not necessarily mean their problem (concerning education, healthcare, injustice, welfare, etc…) is magically solved. Said person is just one of hundreds who met the ruler in that single day, and the hand-delivered written letter might go ignored. Even if the problem is luckily solved it is still not a practical method of governance or resolving grievances.

    UAE is a country, not a tribe. And it should be governed accordingly. Saying “oppression is bad” is a gross understatement. Imagine a country that locks up and ruins its citizens lives just because there is a disagreement on how the country should be governed. It is normal and natural for any country to have an opposition. It is human nature. But this is something that absolute monarchies will not tolerate at all, even if it is solely done online through petitions and online forums. The very least these governments can do is ignore these individual, but instead it actively sets out to imprison them and destroy their livelihood, affecting their entire family.

    Charlie’s apologist reasoning can be applied to any previous civil rights movement to show how absurd it is. Imagine if someone said to the suffragette supporters that their movement is insensitive because it does not take into consideration that the special patriarchal culture of said country. Or pleading to the anti-apartheid movement that they failed recognize the the special “Baasskap” culture of South Africa. But when it comes to UAE we must respect their special “tribal cultural” background (whatever that means), and let them use that that system of governance as shield to oppress individuals who ask for basic human rights.

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