The Last Human Rights Defender in the Emirates

Jon Gambrell/AP Photo

Ahmed Mansour was convicted of insulting “the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” and spreading “fake news,” receiving a ten-year sentence.

Ramadan is around the corner. It has been customary for governments to give amnesty to political prisoners to mark the holiday. The United Arab Emirates should take this opportunity to release Ahmed Mansoor, a digital activist and human rights advocate who, six weeks into a hunger strike, is in dire condition.

The United Arab Emirates, the consortium of seven city-states that includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi, boasts a Ministry of Tolerance but can’t tolerate true independent voices.

The Emirates have cultivated a better international reputation than they deserve as relative liberals in the Middle East. In the past two decades, Dubai has transformed itself into a celebrated business hub and a diverse global city. It attracts major businesses and hordes of tourists, major cultural institutions and branches of international universities and art museums.

All of those passing through the Gulf metropolis, however, should implicitly recognize that there is no rule of law there. A person can be snatched off the street arbitrarily and stripped of their rights. It’s happened to Mansoor as well as the Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul.

Mansoor, 49, founded an early web forum for Emiratis and Arabs and has since been a target. Throughout a decade of harassment, physical abuse, and arbitrary detention, he bravely spoke out about human rights abuses in the United Arab Emirates. He was a lone voice in a country where organizers and dissenters have been co-opted or silenced. In the process, Mansoor’s bank account was mysteriously emptied of $140,000, vicious Israeli spyware was sent to his phone, and his child’s baby monitor was hacked.

“I continued my activities regardless of what happened because my principles are deeper than what they think,” Mansoor told me in 2016.

But a year later, Emirati authorities arrested him in the middle of the night from his home in the Emirate of Ajman, taking him away from his wife and four children. During a year of pretrial detention, he was not allowed access to legal representation. In May 2018, he was convicted of insulting “the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” and spreading “fake news,” receiving a ten-year sentence. He has since been held in solitary confinement. His conditions are unbearable—his cell has no bed or sink—which are among the reasons why Mansoor is staging a hunger strike.

Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the Emirates, is considered a strategic mastermind. Why is he afraid of one online organizer?

“There is no willingness from the ruling family for any political reform,” Mansoor told me on Skype three years ago. “That’s the red line for them. It’s an existential threat to them … They are running the whole country, and they are not accountable for anything they do.”

“The UAE is living in its darkest ages considering human rights in general,” he noted, describing the state’s use of forced disappearances, torture, and black sites.

Few others in the Emirates had been willing to stake out such a bold position, and even fewer have been willing to publicly advocate for his freedom.

“I’m quite saddened to hear about what’s happening to Ahmed,” one Emirati wrote me, declining to be identified because of the risks associated with speaking out.

Mansoor has already served about two years of his ten-year sentence. Neither attorneys nor diplomats have been allowed to attend his hearings.

“We believe no one anywhere should be prosecuted or imprisoned for exercising their human rights or fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression,” a State Department official wrote by email. “We continue to strongly urge all nations to abide by international obligations and commitments to respect human rights.”

“We have followed Ahmed Mansoor’s case, as documented in the Human Rights Report,” the official added. The 2018 Human Rights Report detailed Mansoor’s lack of due process, his lengthy pretrial detention, and his being held in solitary confinement.

But when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Abu Dhabi in January, he piled praise upon the Emirates; he did not publicly mention Mansoor’s case or any human rights issues in the UAE. Washington’s relations with the Emirates, already a powerhouse in the Washington Middle East circuit, have grown especially tight under President Trump. The UAE imports billions of dollars of American weapons and has been a leading force in the heinous war on Yemen.

Yet for all of MbZ’s high-profile meetings with U.S. officials, little is said about internal dynamics in the country. Emirati authorities have been remarkably efficient in their crackdown, while sustaining in the international media and popular culture a sunny narrative of progress in the country. The UAE’s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“There are no activists, there are no NGOs” in the Emirates, said Kristina Stockwood, the fundraising manager at the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. “Every known human rights defender we’ve ever worked with in the Emirates is in prison.”

Mansoor serves as an advisory board member of the center. “We would say half-jokingly to Ahmed, what will we do when you are arrested?” Stockwood told me. “Who will give us the information about your trial and imprisonment?”

Now that job falls upon those of us who have depended on Mansoor’s work. As he told me in 2016: “To me, if human rights and freedom do not exist in a place, everything else is … of no importance.”

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