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Rights group stopped from speaking at UN after UAE's 'terror' accusation

Alkarama denies the charges against it, and decries the move as 'political'
Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs, addresses the 71st session of the UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York in 2016 (AFP)

The UAE has prevented a Middle East-focused rights group from raising concerns over its alleged misuse of anti-terror laws at the United Nations by accusing it of "connections to terrorism".

Geneva-based Alkarama Foundation had in January sought consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), allowing it to speak on behalf of clients at reviews of the country's human rights records at the UN.

Its application was rejected after a draft resolution spearheaded by the UAE and backed by Algeria, India and the United States was passed at an ECOSOC meeting in New York on Wednesday.

UAE representative Ahmed al-Mahmoud told the meeting of 54 nations that he was "deeply concerned" that Alkarama Foundation, which provides pro-bono legal assistance to victims of human rights violations, had been recommended for special consultative status.

"While a diversity of voices remains a bedrock principal of both the UN and its engagement with civil society, Alkarama’s connections to terrorism are incompatible with the UN Charter," he said.

'Terrorism' label as weapon of choice

Alkarama's executive director Dr Mourad Dhina told MEE that "the label of terrorism has become a weapon of choice because they know such allegations will be taken seriously by their Western counterparts" and that it was "concerning" that UAE's allegations were not questioned.

"Our work, which is to bring cases of victims of gross human rights abuses before the UN, is considered as highly subversive by Arab states because they say we want to tarnish their image abroad.

"They are after Alkarama because they want to shut down the channel we represent between Arab civil societies and the UN."

ECOSOC's procedure for vetting NGOs has been accused of being "politicised" in the past by leading rights groups including Human Rights Watch.

Since its founding in 2004, Alkarama has become a thorn in the side of repressive regimes in the Middle East and North Africa by filing complaints on behalf of thousands of victims of torture, enforced disappearances and summary executions at the UN.

This work with the UN will continue as the NGO's links with the committees on torture and enforced disappearances, which are based a few blocks away from its Geneva headquarters, remain intact.

But ECOSOC consultative status would have given Alkarama the right to have their documents translated and circulated as official UN documents, to speak at the influential Human Rights Council and to intervene at the Universal Periodic Review every four years, where a country's human rights record is scrutinised by other member states.

Criticism of UAE

In a report submitted to the UN ahead of UAE's review in January 2018, Alkarama described a UAE terrorism law passed in 2014 as "paving the way for criminalisation of peaceful acts of protest".

The NGO has also documented rights abuses in UAE including the case of prominent academic Dr Nasser Bin Ghaith, who was disappeared for eight months before being jailed for 10 years based on comments he had made on Twitter stating that he had not been given a fair trial in an earlier case.

Alkarama has also chided the Gulf nation, which currently sits on the UN's Human Rights council, for using intelligent spyware and revoking the citizenship of human rights defenders.

Alkarama has already been under strain after it was declared a "terrorist organisation" by the UAE in 2014 in a list that included leading UK-based charity Islamic Relief. A co-founder of Alkarama, Qatari academic Abdulrahman al-Nuami, was designated an al-Qaeda supporter by the United States Treasury Department in 2013.

On Wednesday, the UAE told the 54 nations' delegates at the ECOSOC meeting that Alkarama had a "clear connection to terrorism".

But Alkarama claims that the US Treasury Department has officially confirmed in a letter that al-Nuami's designation concerned him in his private capacity and that "Alkarama has never been sanctioned".

Alkarama said that UAE's listing in 2014 "lacked credibility" and that they had never received any official notification. 

Algeria, a co-sponsor of the resolution, argued on Wednesday that Alkarama members were "being prosecuted in court" based on an earlier call it had made for the extradition of two Alkarama staff on charges of "terrorism".

Under an international arrest warrant, French authorities arrested Dhina in 2012 before a French court dismissed the charges as "grotesque," while legal director Rachid Mesli was placed under house arrest by Italian authorities in 2015 before his case was thrown out. 

The resolution comes after the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, placed 12 groups with links to Qatar on a terror list as part of a diplomatic and transport blockade of Qatar, aimed at checking Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian influence in the region.

In 2014, the UAE also designated as "terrorist" the influential US-based Council of American-Islamic Relations, and UK-based organisations the Cordoba Foundation and Muslim Association of Britain. They deny the charges.

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