The UAE’s human rights record must be questioned on president’s UK visit
29 April 2013
A trial of 94 dissidents who petitioned for democratic reforms resumes today in Abu Dhabi. Its hearings are still in secret A welcome pavilion has been constructed at Windsor Castle for today’s state visit of Sheikh Khalifa, president of the United Arab Emirates.
I can readily understand the need to polish the family silver to impress the visitors. The UAE is recognised as a valued investor in the UK, with Boris Johnson recently referring to himself as the “mayor of the eighth emirate”. After all, Dubai has invested in a £1.5bn new deepwater port at London Gateway, while up the river, the £36m Emirates Airline cable car carries Londoners across the Thames.
The UAE is also a purchaser of expensive military hardware. In November last year, David Cameron led a delegation to the UAE to, among other things, persuade the Emiratis to purchase 60 British Typhoon aircraft. Human rights were to be discussed, the prime minister said. “On human rights, there are no no-go areas in this relationship.”
Coincidentally, a trial going to the heart of the UAE’s human rights record resumes in the Abu Dhabi on the very day of Sheikh Khalifa’s visit. The 94 defendants face allegations of “attempting to overthrow the government and undermine the establishment”, an offence carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment. They include royalty, judges, academics and, most worryingly, lawyers who have represented other dissidents in similar trials.
On 4 March this year, I attempted to observe the first hearing of the trial. My delegation, led by Geoffrey Robertson QC, a human rights expert and former UN judge, was instructed by the Emirates Centre for Human Rights, an NGO in London. A report of our findings can be found here.
Arrests began last summer. Suspects were detained in secret without access to their lawyers and families. Alarmingly, consistent accounts have emerged from the defendants of torture by beating, sleep deprivation and threats of sexual violence. A forced confession of one of the detainees was dramatically retracted in court.
Some of the defendants belong to Al-Islah, a non-violent, Islamic organisation set up in 1974. They protest that their arrests were simply reprisals for petitioning Sheikh Khalifa in 2011 to introduce democratic elections and to grant parliament legislative powers.
Critics of the president suggest that the trial is part of a purge against Al-Islah, whose requests for democratic change have become intolerable to an absolute monarch nervous about the pace of political change in a post-Arab spring Middle East.
Lawyers in the case complain of the denial of proper access to both the defendants and the prosecution evidence they face. They allege the state is deliberately hampering the preparation of the defence of the detainees.
The authorities do not seem keen to have the proceedings exposed to public scrutiny. The day before the trial, observers from Amnesty International were refused entry to the country without explanation. Abdullah Al-Haddidi, the son of one of the detainees was arrested on 22 March 2013 for tweeting about the proceedings; he has since been sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment.
My own attempt to observe the trial was unsuccessful. Our taxi was turned away at police roadblocks, and a subsequent attempt to approach the area on foot was stopped by armed police and state security officers.
After a number of meetings with state officials from the ministry of justice and the supreme court, a formal procedure was set out for authorisation of international observers to attend the next hearing on 11 March 2013.
I made an application and attended the supreme court on the morning of the hearing, to be informed that my application was refused; no further explanation was offered. To date, no foreign observers or press have been granted access to the trial.
Sheikh Khalifa will meet David Cameron at Downing Street. In those discussions, it is to be hoped that the trial of the 94 detainees is not a “no-go area”.
Photograph: Sheikh Khalifa, president of the UAE. He arrives in the UK today. David Cameron has not ruled out discussing human rights with him. Photograph: Stefan Zaklin/EPA
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