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Torture in the United Arab Emirates

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On September 6th, six of the sixty-one detainees demanding democratic reforms in the United Arab Emirates were presented before a Supreme Court judge to extend their detention as part of a crackdown against political dissent.

Their lawyer, Abdulhameed al-Kuamaiti, was permitted to the court in what was the first occasion for any of the detainees to be seen since their arrest. Their appearance in court was the first time that al-Kuamaiti had seen his clients after weeks of intimidation and appeared to confirm the fears of torture that have been circulating.

According to those present, all six appeared disheveled, disoriented and distressed. Eisa al-Sari was barely able to walk and Rashid al-Shamsi complained that he was weak after being given sleeping pills. Salem al-Shehi, a lawyer who was arrested after visiting the State Security Prosecution office in an attempt to represent Dr. Mohamed al Roken, struggled to stand, had lost a significant amount of weight and was unable to follow proceedings. In the court, the judge refused to explain to al-Kuamaiti the legal basis for the men's continued detention.

The sixty-one detainees in the UAE make up the largest crackdown against political dissent in the country's short history and represent the full spectrum of opposition. As yet, no charges or evidence has been brought against those detained. Those held include respected academics, lawyers, Islamists, a former president of the Jurists' Association and even a member of the royal family of the northern emirate, Ras al Khaimah.

Fears for the myriad of detained judges, lawyers and human rights activists have intensified after the testimony of a Syrian, Abdulelah al-Jadani, implicated the UAE in carrying out torture. Al-Jadani, who arrived in the Emirates in 2008 for work, was arrested by fifteen plain-clothed security officers on May 8th 2011 and subjected to eighteen days of torture.

According to Al-Jadani, he was kept in a windowless 3 by 2 metre cell and taken to a room every afternoon where he was beaten, whipped, held in painful stress positions and hung from the wall by his arms and legs. He was kept in solitary confinement for three months after the interrogations ended before eventually being released in January 2012.

Allegations of torture have resulted in fears deepening for the health of Ahmed Ghaith Al-Suweidi. Al-Suweidi, one of the sixty-one detainees, was arrested on March 26th and taken to Al-Shahama detention centre in Abu Dhabi before being transferred to an unknown location where he has remained ever since.

Throughout his detention, al-Suweidi has contacted his family only once, on August 27th, with a short phone call; the authorities have neither disclosed his location nor charged him with a crime. Al-Suweidi's detention has now been deemed to be an enforced disappearance by Human Rights Watch.

Details of the torture allegations were revealed on Twitter, by the son of the detained human rights lawyer Dr. Mohamed al Mansoori, and have shocked many within Emirati society. Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent human rights activist who was arrested and pardoned last year after eight months in prison, believes that 'people at different levels are shocked to know that the detainees are being subjected to physical and psychological torture. This is not going to make people responsible for the state security apparatus popular, not to mention the security services themselves.'

The shock at the treatment of detainees is set against the background of growing frustration amongst the educated elites and those living in the poorer northern emirates. Dr. Christopher Davidson of Durham University, expert in Gulf affairs, explained in a recent article that 'there has been mounting frustration among the more educated sections of the national population, especially with regard to corruption, lack of transparency and human rights abuses'. Davidson goes on to depict the burgeoning inequalities in terms of 'a widening wealth gap ... and not all of the national population are being provided with adequate economic opportunities. This is leading to many ... in the northern emirates beginning to voice their dissent'.

Altogether this depicts a situation that is unsustainable. In the past the UAE has sought to buy political acquiescence through state handouts, yet, as pointed out by the economist Nasser bin Ghaith, a former fellow inmate of Ahmed Mansoor, 'benefits and handouts assume citizens [Emiratis] are not like other Arabs or other human beings ... this only delays change and reform, which will come sooner or later'. As for the authorities' attempts to quell dissent through a brutal crackdown, this will only serve to exacerbate the increasing discontent amongst poorer nationals and deepen the frustration of the educated elites tired of various abuses of power.

As Dr. Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen so eloquently explained in an article last month, 'all political systems - monarchical or republican, democratic or authoritarian - must adapt to and change with the times. Failure to do so on one's own terms, 'from above', leaves open the possibility that pressures will eventually build-up from below.

In a country where Emiratis only make up 15% of the population, expatriates, multinational businesses and the international community should listen carefully.

Throughout the Arab Spring we have heard our leaders speak of supporting those who wish to advance democratic values and who have vowed to protect the values of freedom of speech and association. Thus far, none of these principles have been upheld with regard to the Emirates.

The lack of political will can no longer be tolerated as Western leaders' past and future legitimacy rests on such issues. Furthermore, the reliable testimonies concerning the maltreatment of prisoners and accusations of enforced disappearances require immediate attention. As a matter of urgency, the international community must ensure the following: for the location of detainees to be disclosed; family visitation and legal counsel to be granted; for those held to be charged and tried in a fair and just manner; and to dismiss any evidence obtained during torture. In order for fundamental human rights to be protected, it must first be understood that it is the deafening silence of the world that has allowed the UAE to continue torturing their citizens with ever increasing impunity.