A bizarre trial has started in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Waleed al-Shehhi is facing charges of endangering public order after making online comments in which he questioned the legality of detaining political activists in secret prisons. His trial is the latest in a string of cases where authorities appear to be increasingly following a script mirroring that of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984.
Waleed al-Shehhi is accused of violating Article 29 of the Cybercrimes Decree, which outlaws the use of information technology to make comments that could ‘endanger state security’. Shehhi used his Twitter account to defend 94 political reformists, of which 69 were recently convicted in a ‘fundamentally unfair’ trial. As well as questioning secret detention, he criticized freezing of bank accounts belonging to detainees’ families and called for torture allegations to be independently investigated. He faces a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a maximum fine of 1 million dirhams ($272,000).
This is not an isolated case: Abdulla al-Hadidi is currently serving a 10-month prison sentence for using Twitter to question why torture allegations had not been investigated in a trial of political dissidents. 19-year-old Mohamed al-Zumer is charged with having used information technology to produce videos defaming the country’s rulers, while his family says he is being targeted for supporting political reformists on social media. The logic of the authorities is truly Orwellian – the only offence of the ‘criminals’ was thought crime.
The clearest case of thought crime is with regard to the detention of Anas Fouda, an Egyptian journalist resident in Dubai for almost 10 years. Fouda has been released after a month of incommunicado detention at a secret location due to, he believes, articles written in support of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Fouda has never criticized the Emirati authorities but he clearly possessed unacceptable thoughts, insofar as he dared to voice support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the UAE’s Emmanuel Goldstein and is constantly denounced as a dangerous enemy plotting to seize power. Despite the unsubstantiated nature of the allegations, tame domestic media outlets regularly submit the group to vitriolic criticism mirroring the ‘two minutes hate’. The Muslim Brotherhood is a convenient bogeyman used to smear all political opponents. As Dr. Christopher Davidson recently remarked, the Gulf monarchies have ‘tended to pick upon what’s likely to be the most effective demon to get the bulk of their population on board and connect that opposition…to an external threat’.
Whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE, an Iranian backed fifth column in Bahrain or Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, a crucial element in the survival strategies of Gulf monarchies has been to demonize political opponents. Arrests continue across the region: in Bahrain with blogger Mohamed Hassan and in Saudi Arabia an activist has been sentenced to a 7 year prison sentence and 600 lashes. In Oman a blogger has been re-arrested for comments made on social media, in identical circumstances to those seen in the UAE.
As the UAE’s political opposition grows, giving rise to one of the highest per capita rates of political prisoners in the region, so too do the attempts to shut off all avenues of criticism. An extraordinary transnational move to shutdown a popular news website, watan.com, demonstrates the lengths to which authorities will go to silence critics.
Globally ranked 114th for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, domestic media outlets happily toe the line of authority-approved newspeak. Regrettably for the authorities international media refuse to bow to such demands and this has led to the targeting of Watan.
The site, which follows a broadly liberal secular line and supports freedom of speech in the Arab world, is registered with a German hosting company and run by a team based in the United States. The UAE’s Telecom Regularity Authority has sent a letter to the hosting company asking for the site to be closed down. Authorities say, predictably, the site is owned by the ‘Global Muslim Brotherhood Union’ although they do not back up their claims with any evidence.
While those responsible for the Watan news site are safely beyond the grasp of UAE authorities, it is a different story for political prisoners in the country. Credible allegations of torture in the UAE 94 trial have been consistently dismissed without investigation. 6 of the 69 who were convicted have started a hunger strike in protest at their continued mistreatment. Dr. Mohamed al-Mansoori, a respected human rights lawyer serving a 10-year sentence, is hunger striking and says his shoulder was dislocated during a beating by prison guards.
Prisoners complained of 24-hour fluorescent lighting during pre-trial detention and now say that all windows are covered blocking out sunlight. Hearing the accounts of political prisoners evokes images straight out of Orwell’s Ministry of Love, completed by allegations of electric shocks and forced nail removal, reminiscent of the sadistic violence unleashed in Room 101.
What began with a moderate petition calling for a wholly elected parliament with full legislative powers has led to a harsh crackdown where no dissent is tolerated. It completes the picture of a country that is rapidly becoming a police state.
While the prevailing international image of the country is one of progress and liberalism, citizens calling for democratic reforms are feeling the full force of repressive and intolerant authorities. The many billions spent on projecting a positive image may deflect criticism for now but it does nothing to remedy the problem of a burgeoning political opposition angry at authorities that refuse to engage with their rather moderate demands.