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UN expert calls on UAE to release jailed human rights defenders

Sentenced to ten years in prison, three imprisoned human rights defenders have been subjected to 'conditions that may amount to torture', says UN Special Rapporteur
A policeman enters Dubai's Al-Awir central prison in the United Arab Emirates
A police officer enters Dubai's Al-Awir central prison in the United Arab Emirates, on 21 May 2020 (AFP/File photo)

A United Nations expert has called on the UAE to release three human rights defenders serving 10-year prison sentences while "being mistreated in conditions that may amount to torture". 

Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, called on the UAE to release Mohamed al-Roken, Ahmed Mansoor and Nasser bin Ghaith - three men imprisoned for publicly criticising the government, among other related charges. 

'The conditions and treatment... are in violation of human rights standards and may constitute torture'

- Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur

"Issuing 10-year prison sentences to defenders in connection to their human rights work is not only an attempt to silence them and their efforts, but also an attempt to intimidate and deter others from engaging in this legitimate work, at a crucial time in the UAE when fundamental freedoms are undermined and civic space continues to shrink," Lawlor said in a statement on Wednesday.

Lawlor said all three men had been "subjected to ill-treatment" in prison for their "non-violent and legitimate calls for respect for human rights". 

"Reports I have received indicate that the conditions and treatment that these human rights defenders are subjected to, such as prolonged solitary confinement, are in violation of human rights standards and may constitute torture," she continued. 

Jailed for defending human rights 

Roken, prominent for his human rights work, has been imprisoned since 2012 on charges of "plotting against the government". According to Lawlor, during his imprisonment the rights advocate has endured intermittent periods in solitary confinement, "allegedly without justification or explanation".

Roken was convicted during a controversial mass trial known as the "UAE 94", during which 94 people were charged with trying to overthrow the Emirati government, a charge they denied.

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Last year, the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) called on the Emirates to release Roken and five others that it said should have been released on 16 July 2019. 

In 2013, the UN's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) found Roken's detention to be arbitrary and requested his immediate release. 

Mansoor, a 51-year-old Emirati engineer, poet, and father of four, has been detained since 2017. 

He had posted on social media, and was convicted in 2018 on charges of insulting the "status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols" including its leaders, and of "seeking to damage the relationship of the UAE with its neighbours by publishing false reports and information on social media".

"The human rights defender has been serving his 10-year sentence in Al-Sadr prison, where he is reportedly confined to a cell measuring four square metres with no mattress, and limited or no access to sunlight, a shower or potable water," the special rapporteur alleged in Wednesday's report. 

Held in dire conditions

After several recent hunger strikes, Mansoor's health "has significantly deteriorated" and he has reportedly been denied necessary medical treatment, Lawlor alleged. 

Last month Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a damning report that detailed the first public account of Mansoor's closed trial and of his subsequent appeal. 

Like Lawlor, the group also found that Mansoor had been held for the past four years entirely alone in a two-metre by two-metre cell.

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Mansoor began his human rights activism in the UAE in 2006. During the decade before his imprisonment, he successfully campaigned for the release of two Emiratis jailed for comments they made online and led an effort opposing a draft media law that threatened freedom of expression. 

In 2011 he was jailed for nearly eight months and convicted of "insulting the rulers" before being pardoned following international outcry. 

Bin Ghaith, arrested in 2015 on charges relating to social media posts criticising human rights violations and political leaders, has also been reportedly subjected to "ill-treatment", according to Lawlor's documentation. 

Originally held in Al-Sadr prison, in 2017 he was transferred to Al-Razeen prison, a notorious facility in Abu Dhabi's desert, in response to a 40-day hunger strike he launched in protest at his treatment and prison conditions. 

In 2018, he again went on a hunger strike for a reported 80 days to protest his denial of access to medication, physical assault by prison authorities and periods in solitary confinement.

The WGAD issued an opinion on bin Ghaith's detention, finding it arbitrary and requesting his immediate release.