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Mary Robinson cancels appearance at Dubai festival over jailed UAE activist

Robinson's foundation confirmed she will not attend Dubai literary festival in response to calls for Ahmed Mansoor's freedom
Friends of Sheikha Latifa al-Maktoum, pictured here with Robinson, say she is being detained against her will (UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation)

Ireland's former president, Mary Robinson, has confirmed she will not attend a Dubai literary festival in response to a call from academics and authors for the United Arab Emirates to release detained human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor.

Robinson, who also served as a United Nations human rights commissioner, said on Monday that she would not attend the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, set to take place from 1-9 March in Dubai.

In a statement to The Guardian, the Mary Robinson Foundation said: "In response to the open letter received by the Guardian, Mrs Robinson has advised the organisers that she will not be attending the literature festival."

The foundation did not respond to requests for comment from Middle East Eye.

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The letter, organised by the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE), calls on the Emirati authorities to "immediately and unconditionally release prisoner of conscience Ahmed Mansoor".

It was signed by academics, activists, British politicians, and comedians, including linguist Noam Chomsky and actor Stephen Fry.

Joe Odell, a campaigns manager for ICFUAE, welcomed Robinson's decision to pull out of the Dubai event.

"We urgently call on other attendees to follow suit. The festival claims to celebrate freedom of expression, yet so many in the UAE have been detained for exercising this very right," Odell told Middle East Eye.

"As a poet and human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor was the embodiment of free speech in the UAE: fearlessly speaking out about injustice when others were too scared to do so. For this, the regime rewarded him with a 10-year prison sentence."

'They must boycott'

Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison for "defaming the UAE on social media" and an appeal to overturn his sentence was rejected at the end of 2018.

"As long as he remains in prison, it is farcical for UK authors to travel to Dubai and celebrate the power of the written word," Odell said.

"If they genuinely wish to advocate for freedom of expression, they must boycott the festival. For conversely, by attending, they help to conceal this basic right’s suppression.”

As long as he remains in prison, it is farcical for UK authors to travel to Dubai and celebrate the power of the written word

- Joe Odell, International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE

Other prominent writers billed to speak at the festival include Oxford University professor Peter Frankopan, Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, and author Ian Rankin.

Robinson's decision to withdraw from the festival comes following a broader backlash against her, after she was pictured in December 2018 with Sheikha Latifa al-Maktoum, the daughter of Emirati Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Rashid al-Maktoum.

In 2018, Latifa was at the centre of an international scandal after her friends said she was abducted by UAE commandos from a yacht in the Indian Ocean and taken back to Dubai.

Latifa's picture with Robinson in December 2018 was the first sighting of the Emirati princess since that alleged incident.

Robinson, who was described as a "willing pawn" for the Dubai royal family, defended her trip to Dubai, which was paid for by Latifa's stepmother, Princess Haya. 

In response to criticism, Robinson told the BBC that Latifa was "vulnerable" and dealing with a "serious medical situation" for which she is receiving psychiatric care.