UAE imprisons Syrian rights activist for ‘insulting the prestige of the state’

The UAE yesterday sentenced a Syrian human rights activist to ten years in prison on charges of terrorism and insulting the prestige of the state.

Abdul Rahman Al-Nahhas, the Syrian activist who founded Insan Watch Organization which documents the Syrian regime’s human rights violations, was sentenced by the State Security Department of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s Federal Court almost two years after being arrested on 23 December 2019.

Al-Nahhas was charged by the Public Prosecutor with alleged membership in a terrorist organization due to his contact with the Switzerland-based Al-Karama Organization for Human Rights, as well as being charged for insulting the prestige of the state by sending an email to the French embassy requesting political asylum.

Following his arrest at the end of 2019, he was forcibly disappeared by Emirati authorities until his trial began in January 2021, when he was sent to Al-Wathba prison. There he was allowed to speak to his family over the phone for the first time since his disappearance, but after he revealed that he was threatened and tortured during his time in detention, the Emirati authorities forbade him from speaking again.

According to the Emirates’ Detainees Advocacy Centre (EDAC), since 7 January 2021 Al-Nahhas has been completely cut off from communication with the outside world, and has even been forbidden communication with his legal representative.

Human rights advocates around the world have spoken out, voicing their concerns regarding Al-Nahhas’ treatment at the hands of Emirati authorities and the charges his sentencing is based on. On 25 August, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor and other UN experts sent a joint letter to the UAE expressing those concerns.

Over the years, the UAE has led a campaign of suppression against human rights activists and aid workers, arresting and forcibly disappearing them before subjecting them to long sentences and torture in detention. Last year it was revealed that Abu Dhabi is detaining and torturing a Turkish aid worker who had missions in Syria, accusing him of terrorism-related crimes.

Such human rights violations against activists related to the conflict in Syria come amid the UAE’s increasingly warm ties and cooperation with the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad over the past few years, resulting in Emirati authorities cracking down on any criticism of Al-Assad crimes against humanity.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, in early June expressed her grave concern at the long-term detention of five human rights defenders in the United Arab Emirates, describing their imprisonment as arbitrary.

The five human rights activists, Mohamed Al-Mansoori, Hassan Hammad, Hadif Al-Owais, Ali Al-Kindi and Salim Al-Shahhi, are part of a group of 94 lawyers, human rights defenders and academics, called the “UAE94” group, who were sentenced to ten years in prison in July 2013 for plotting to overthrow the government.

In a statement published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Lawlor said that their sentences were excessive and stressed that they should never have been detained for legitimately exercising the freedoms that all people are entitled to.

“There are worrying allegations that they are subjected to long periods in solitary confinement, which could amount to torture. Other allegations include authorities turning off the air conditioning as temperatures rose above 40°C, and windows being covered, preventing prisoners from seeing sunlight,” said Lawlor.

She added that their trials might have violated their right to a fair trial by denying their access to legal counsel.

The UN rapporteur called on Abu Dhabi to release the human rights defenders immediately in order to continue their meaningful and necessary human rights work.