Over the past year there have been a number of allegations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that authorities are torturing prisoners. Defendants in a trial of political dissidents, three Britons held in Dubai and two Syrians have come out to say they have been tortured. Now, smuggled handwritten letters by Egyptian prisoners facing trial over alleged Muslim Brotherhood links say that they have been tortured as well.
The reaction from authorities has been to either ignore allegations or dismiss them as fantasy. This approach undermines the UAE's commitment to the United Nations (UN) Convention Against Torture, which authorities signed up to in July 2012. In each case of alleged torture there has been an emphatic failure to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation.
It is of grave concern that authorities in the UAE are being allowed to misappropriate a crucial treaty for the purposes of furthering a broadly positive international image. Shortly after signing up to the Convention Against Torture, the UAE won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council at the same time as Human Rights Watch were reporting on enforced disappearances and torture in the country. Whilst Emirati authorities fail to meet their obligations it is difficult to conclude anything other than their very public commitment to human rights is nothing but a public relations exercise.
Handwritten letters by Egyptian prisoners include allegations consistent with those made by others, with prisoners saying they have been subjected to beatings, electric shocks and exposed to extremes of temperature in solitary confinement. Prisoners say guards have threatened them with HIV infection, sexual abuse and death while revealing that when they complain to the prosecutor, he has threatened them with further torture if they do not admit the charges against them.
The trial of these Egyptians is due to start on November 5th, when defendants will face charges of illegally establishing a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE. It is crucial that authorities address these allegations prior to trial, otherwise the process will have little credibility. Authorities must approach this with impartiality in line with Article 12 of the Convention Against Torture, which requires an investigation wherever there is reasonable ground to believe an act of torture has been committed.
Concerns about the fairness of a trial for the Egyptians have been raised with the release of a report by the International Commission of Jurists that described a similar trial, that of the UAE 94, as 'manifestly unfair'. It should be noted that of the 61 men currently serving prison sentences from that trial, 20 of them are on hunger strike protesting against alleged mistreatment by prison authorities.
The link between the UAE 94 and the trial of the Egyptians is clear to see. Both groups are accused of conspiratorial Muslim Brotherhood activities, which is the bogeyman of the day for Emirati authorities when dealing with political opponents. Indeed, the role of the UAE in Egypt's military coup has been called into question following an interview with Ahmed Shafiq in which the former Egyptian Prime Minister admitted the UAE had given weapons to the Egyptian army prior to the massacres at Rabaa al-Adawiyya and Al Nahda.
There is a clear disconnect between the commitment to protect human rights made by the UAE and the reality of their actions in dealing with a political group they dislike and citizens who call for democratic reforms. Authorities have committed to preventing torture and sit on the Human Rights Council, yet fail to uphold their treaty obligations and openly support massacres by the army in Egypt.
At the heart of the issue here are human stories. The Sonbol family of Egypt is a tragic case in point. Ali Sonbol is an Egyptian who was arrested in the UAE on December 19th 2012 and is accused of illegal Muslim Brotherhood activities. He claims to have been severely beaten by prison guards, leaving him with a number of serious injuries. Tragically, Ali Sonbol's 24-year-old son was killed in the massacre at Rabaa al-Awawiyya in August. Given that Ali Sonbol is being held at a secret prison it is unclear if he knows his son has been murdered. This family has suffered the full brunt of the UAE's policies in aggressively attacking anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is a sad state of affairs when a country is allowed to, quite clearly, abuse the just cause of protecting human rights. For the Convention Against Torture and Human Rights Council to be effective it is vital that the UAE are demanded to investigate all credible allegations of torture. This includes the case of the Egyptian prisoners, the UAE 94, the three Britons and that of the two Syrians. Until that happens, the UAE are being allowed to make a mockery of the international protection of human rights with families like the Sonbols left to suffer the horrific consequences.