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Imogen Lambert

Emirati exiles speak out over UAE94 trial

Dubai is known for its glamour; less so for repression of dissidents [AFP]

Date of publication: 29 May, 2015

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Feature: Speaking exclusively to al-Araby al-Jadeed, three Emirati opposition activists, forced into UK exile, break their silence to relate their stories.
"There were problems before the Arab Spring... but after 2011, everything became worse," said Abdullah, an Emirati lawyer, now living in exile in London. 

In March 2011, a group of Emirati academics, lawyers, teachers and activists signed a petition demanding reforms from the authorities. They wanted every citizen of the United Arab Emirates to be eligible to vote, and increased legislative powers for the council.

The authorities responded harshly, with a wave of arrests, including putting five high-profile activists on trial in November 2011.  

Shortly afterwards, six members of the al-Islah movement were stripped of their nationality.

Much of the government's crackdown focused on al-Islah - its name meaning "reform". It is one of the oldest political groups in the UAE and says it focuses on educational and charitable reform, while officials within the UAE authorities accuse them of being militant Islamists. 

This crackdown peaked during the "UAE94" trial, where 94 activists, many of whom were affiliated to the now out-lawed al-Islah, were sentenced in a trial that rights groups described as "flagrantly unfair".

"It was to keep the people silent," Abdullah said in reference to the unprecedented crackdown. 

Abdullah worked for the judiciary until mid-2012, when he was forced to take early retirement without a pension - without any reason given, he says. As the wave of arrests continued, he came to the UK, and has been separated from his family for two years.  

Since his arrival in London, authorities in the UAE have detained his closest kin. 

"I had no idea where ***** was... I was very worried," he recalls. 
     The leader of the opposition movement was kept in solidarity confinement in his relative's palace


His story is strikingly similar to the accounts of other exiles.

Ahmed al-Nuaimi is from a prominant family, close to the ruling family of Ajman, one of the poorest emirates among the seven that make up the confederation of the UAE. He is "a rich man from a poor city", as one of his friends described him.  

He worked in education and counselling, travelling throughout the Gulf region, until in 2010, an incident at the airport alerted him to the changing political environment in the UAE. 

"I was going to Australia with a group of students, and I found I was banned from travelling, without any reason from the security services," he said. "I think this is one of the first times they implemented such a ban. I took this case to a court who refused to register the issue until I threatened to take it to the media."

While Nuaimi was on a 2012 business trip in the UK, he received the news that Sultan bin Khayed al Qasami, the president of al-Islah, had been arrested by his own cousin, the ruler of the Ras al Khaimah emirate.  

The opposition leader was kept in solidarity confinement in his relative's palace. 

"The media tried to say it was an internal family issue at first," recalled Salim. 

Salim, from Ras al Khaimah, like the other two exiles, started his activist career in his student union. He went on to work for a financial institution, until, in Feburary 2012 he was fired for no given reason; his boss said it was a direct order from the security services. 

He says he later received a phone call from the ruler of Ras al Khaimah, personally asking him to report to the security services. 

While the case was being investigated, Salim went on holiday with his family to the UK for two weeks. The arrests in the UAE94 case were carried out - and he never returned home.

Salim's family returned to the UAE for the start of the school year, but have since been unable to leave the country, being issued with travel bans. 

Ahmed has also not returned to the emirates since the arrest of Sultan al Qasami.

"I heard that they [the authorities] have my name at the airport, and people told me not to come," he said. 

Ahmed's family, like the families of the other exiles, found themselves banned from travelling. 

In this respect, however, Ahmed was luckier than the others. 

"Last year my family managed to escape… apart from one of my children, who... stays with my parents," he said. 
     The abuses included whipping, beating, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and threats of electrocution


The crackdown

Ahmed was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in absentia during the UAE94 trial. His brother, one of the founders of al-Islah, is still in the UAE, currently serving a ten-year prison sentence. 

"My brother was in his 60s… they tortured him for a year for no reason. No reason at all," he said. 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported on the 
use of torture in UAE prisons in the wake of the trial, detailed on handwritten notes detainees smuggled out from prison.  

The abuses recorded included whipping, beating, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and threats of electrocution. 

Abdullah, who was also sentenced in absentia, told of pranks - which he believed to have been carried out by security service officers. Shortly before he left the UAE, for example, he found that his car had water poured into its petrol tank. 

Al-Islah was formed in 1974, shortly after the confederation gained independence from Britain, making the organisation almost as old as the UAE. It was formed with the approval of the then-ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum. By the 1970s, two of its members sat on the UAE's cabinet. 

"There was no problem between al-Islah and the government," said Ahmed. "Members of the organisation were even in high positions."

Although there were attempts to curtail al-Islah's influence in the 1990s, as the movement's popularity grew, the exiles say there was a shift in treatment towards opposition with the death of Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, and therefore de facto ruler of the UAE, in 2004.

"We can distinguish between the reign of Sheikh Zayed and now," Ahmed said. 

Sheikh Zayed was replaced by his son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan - who is reportedly in ill health, while his younger brother, Mohammed bin Zayed, is said to run much of the country's affairs, with a reputation for being particularly intolerant of Islamists. 

However, it was 2011 - after the petition - which was the watershed moment for the oppression of opposition movements.

The arrest of people from ruling families, including Sultan bin Khayed al Qasami, is a particularly new development in the UAE, which traditionally respects tribal hierarchies. 

Young women from prominent families are also now targeted, such as the 
Suwaidi sisters, who were released last Friday after being detained for three months for campaigning for their brother, one of the UAE94 detainees, on social media. 

"They don't respect anyone," Ahmed said.

The Emirati authority's hatred for suspected Islamist groups have even lead to the 
banning of groups that operate legally in the West, such as Islamic Relief UK, The Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Muslim Council of Great Britain. 

The hostility towards Islamic groups appears to be political, and not cultural or religious; the UAE is a conservative society which bases its penal code on Islamic law. Punishments such as flogging for alcohol consumption and stoning of accused adulterers have also attracted the 
criticism of rights groups

During the UAE94 trial, al-Islah were accused of working for outside interests and even orchestrating terrorist plots - accusations that the three activists strongly deny. 

"We worked under the umbrella of the government as a national organisation, which was founded with approval of the government," Ahmed stressed. "We have no links with outsiders. There was no evidence of that shown in court and no one even mentioned this." 

     If the government had evidence, there is no need to detain and torture people for a year.
Ahmed al-Nuaimi



Salim agreed. "They said that they had evidence but we destroyed it," he added. "Even witnesses got the name of the organisation wrong and made mistakes in their testimony."

A coalition of human rights groups at the time described the proceedings as a "flagrant disregard of fair trial guarantees".

"If the government had evidence, there is no need to detain and torture people for a year," said Ahmed. "Why would they do that if they had evidence? Show us the evidence, and go to a normal court."

These sentiments were echoed by Human Rights Watch, as 
Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East and North Africa director said at the time:

"If the UAE authorities can present admissible and credible evidence that these defendants have committed crimes, why would they shroud the proceedings in secrecy?" 

Reform

Al-Islah has emphasised that it is a reforming, and not a revolutionary organisation. They do not wish to overthrow the system in the UAE, which they have historically been a part of.
 

"We are an organisation that calls for reform; reforming the social life and education of the emirates," Ahmed said.

Although members of al-Islah have previously acknowledged ideological ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, they deny any institutional links and stress the need for basic reforms.
 

"We want an elected parliament, open civil life, and freedom of speech," said Salim.
 

With many emiratis being able to live a comfortable life, and lacking the internal religious schisms that exist in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, open dissent is not widespread in the UAE. However, the exiles opine that desire for reform exists widely, although people are nervous to speak out.

"A lot of people live in fear," said
Salim.

Ahmed also thinks that there are elements of hypocrisy when it comes to demands for change.
 

"Before the arrests in the UAE94 trial, even the media was talking about democracy and human rights," he said. "A lot of them even signed the petition. But afterwards they denied it, and said they didn't even know what the petition said. 'Off the record', people say different things."
 

In October, elections to the UAE national federal council will be held, where a selected list of approved voters will be able to elect a small number of represetatives.

Salim, who was reluctant to use the word "elections" to describe the process, said that the opposition wanted to expand the list of voters to include all Emiratis.
 

"The authorities also reject people from the list of eligible voters - any activists or academics," he said. "Even people who are from the ruling families... anyone who might speak out." 

A united Emirates?

Political problems in the UAE are not limited to human rights issues.
 

Although Emirati citizens hold vastly better situations than migrant workers in the country, economic inequality is also a grievance of many from the smaller Emirates.
 

Within the confederation of seven governorates, the concentration of wealth in Abu Dhabi and Dubai leads to vast inequalities, particularly with the spectacular economic growth of the largest governorates.

Accordingly, al-Islah is reportedly particularly popular in some of the poorer Emirates, such as Ras al Khaimah.

"If you visit the Emirates you can see the difference," said Ahmed. There are vastly varying systems, including education and housing, across the different emirates.

The exiles say that two people working in the same job, for the same employer, would often be paid at vastly different rates depending on their location within the tiny confederation.
 

Additionally, people from the poorer northern emirates are not easily able to migrate south to work.
 

"On your passport, there are listed the different emirates," explained Abdullah. "Job opportunities in Abu Dhabi are only for people in Abu Dhabi."

Foreign policy 

     We used to have a great relationship with our neighbours... If we don't return to that, we will lose the country
- Ahmed al-Nuaimi


In the wake of the Arab Spring, the UAE's foreign policy in the region has been described by some as reactionary.  

The country supports the military-backed regime in Egypt and reportedly funded opposition to Mohamed Morsi.  

The UAE participated in airstrikes with Egypt against Libya Dawn, a pro-Islamist militia group in Libya, and with the US-led coalition in strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria.
 

Considering the official hostility towards any, even supposedly, Islamist-affiliated groups or regimes - both at home and abroad - is there was a connection between the state's domestic politics and foreign policy plans?

Ahmed laughed.

"We are sure there is a relationship," he said. He accuses a number of Arab security figures of continuing their work within UAE internal security services. Mohammed Dahlan, a prominent Palestinian politician and former head of security in Gaza, was decribed by the exiles as acting as an "ambassador" to the UAE. The late Omar Suleiman, Hosni Mubarak's spy chief and right-hand man, was also a frequent visitor to the emirates.

Both men were known for their heavy-handed dealing with opposition within Palestine and Egypt.
 

"The other day, a Syrian asked me 'Why do you support Bashar al-Assad?' - well, of course I don't," said Salim.

"The same incidences happen with Egyptians. It harms the reputation of the Emirati people… Before, we were proud to say we were from the Emirates.

Ahmed agreed. "This country used to have a great relationship with the region… and with our neighbours. They destroyed that in four years. If we don't return to that, we will lose the country."

Yet the Emirates remains a strong ally to Western powers, who benefit from weapons contracts with the UAE, one of the five largest arms importers in the world. 

Dubai, known for its ostentatious wealth and nightlife, has the reputation of being a bastion of tolerence and stability in the region. 

However, as Amnesty International said, beneath a "glamorous facade", there continues to be ruthless crackdowns on dissidents.

Despite the difficulties they faced in the Emirates, the exiles are hoping soon to be able to return to their country, after it enacts reform. They say that the enforced and prolonged separation from their families is one of the hardest parts of their ordeals.
 

"We want to go back but not in this situation," said Salim, who has young children back in the Emirates.

Ahmed agrees. "We believe we will go back and the country will be changed," he said. "The people of this country have a social contract with our leaders.

"Our security department broke this contract, which was established to give people the right to live without fear."

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