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Survivors of UAE torture detail abuse ahead of UN human rights review

The UN has rebuked the UAE over its human rights records ahead the UN Human Rights Council's meeting in Geneva on Monday
Former prisoners accused the UAE of electrocution, rape, and sleep deprivation while they were imprisoned (AFP)

Foreign nationals who have alleged they were tortured in the United Arab Emirates have said that their countries could have done more to help them, with one former detainee claiming that Britain is letting trade deals trump torture.

United States citizen Naji Hamdan and ex-Leeds United football club director David Haigh spoke at a panel at the Geneva Press Club in Switzerland on Friday alongside Qatari medical doctor Mahmood Al-Jaidah and Palestinian refugee Khaled Mohamed Ahmed, who also say they were tortured in the UAE.

Harrowing instances of rape, electrocution and sleep deprivation were described in minute detail by the four men who came together for the first time, days before the UAE’s human rights record is expected to be heavily scrutinised at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday. 

The UN has rebuked the UAE over its human rights records, citing vague "anti-terror" crimes that attract the death penalty, the tightening of censorship and the detention of human rights activists in a report released on Wednesday.

Hamdan was arrested at his Abu Dhabi home in 2008 by agents of the secret intelligence services and held in an unknown location, where he was detained in a freezing underground room and severely beaten by officers of the intelligence services.

According to Hamdan, the interrogations took place over 89 days and would sometimes last for up to 13 hours at a time, most commonly taking place while he was strapped to an electric chair, which despite not being switched on was so uncomfortable his body would become numb in minutes.

If he failed to answer questions satisfactorily, he would repeatedly receive blows to the head, causing him to pass out, he told the audience. 

A Qatari citizen's two years of abuse and false imprisonment by the UAE
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Interrogators threatened him with reprisals against his wife if he did not conform to the allegations of terrorism made against him, forcing him to sign documents which contained false, incriminating information.

His torturers had induced such fear, he said, that: "If they brought me a dead body, I would have signed that I killed it."

Hamdan said he received little support from the US government except for the visits of the US counsel. "The US government position was null," he said.

Lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union have claimed that he was tortured by proxy, at the behest of US authorities.

Naji Hamdan (L) with Mahmood Al-Jaidah, survivors of torture in the UAE

British citizen David Haigh, then the managing director of English football club Leeds United, said that he had travelled from the UK to Dubai in 2014 to resolve a business dispute with the Dubai-based owners of the club, when he was approached by a police officer and taken into detention.

"I had no idea that what should have been a straightforward business deal would soon destroy my life," he said.

"I thought I was going to Dubai to meet the UAE owners and resolve the dispute with them. I was imprisoned as part of a premeditated trap."

Haigh said he was told by his captors "we kill Brits here," and was electrocuted and raped, abuses so severe he was hospitalised for seven months after his release.

Haigh who has since taken up legal action against the UAE, including making complaints against it with the Metropolitan Police in London. said that his case and those of others including Briton Ahmed Zaidan, who is still being held by the UAE, were not being taken seriously because of trade priorities.

"As a Briton, I expect more from my country and as a human, I expect more from the international community. What happened to me has been reported the English Courts, the UAE, the United Nations, the UK Foreign Office."

"Where then is the public condemnation from the UAE, UK, from the US, and from those other stakeholders? Why is it that even corporates and law firms believe it acceptable to misuse the horrors of the UAE legal and prison system as nothing more than a corporate jail?"

"It's very much trade over torture."

David Haigh at the Geneva press club in Switzerland on 19 January (MEE/Amandla Thomas-Johnson)

On Monday, the UAE will undergo a universal periodic review (UPR), a United Nations procedure whereby member nations will call the UAE to account for its human rights record.

The UN has already flagged the UAE's mistreatment of detainees as a sticking point ahead of the review, and the UAE is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Torture. But activists have told MEE that the UAE could benefit from the presence of Egypt, a close ally, as a member of the troika - a group of three countries that will compile a report of recommendations stemming from the session.

Speaking at the conference, Toby Cadman, an international human rights barrister, said he hoped that states present at the UPR will make recommendations to "fundamentally overhaul their human rights system".

"Monday will hopefully be the start of a new horizon where a culture of impunity, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances are promptly brought to an end."

But Cadman, who represents Haigh, warned that states were disregarding human rights violations in the interests of trade.

"The British government has a number of trade agreements with the United Arab Emirates. With Brexit [the UK's departure from the European Union] on the horizon, developing trade with those states seems to be more important than calling for reform."

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