The President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is due to arrive in the UK on Monday for a two day state visit when he will meet with the Queen at Windsor Castle and David Cameron at No. 10. With a traditional carriage procession planned for his visit to Windsor, Sheikh Khalifa will be shown the red carpet treatment; when the President meets with David Cameron a long-mooted arms deal worth several billion pounds will be central to discussions. Yet, with a worsening human rights record that includes the alleged torture of both British and Emirati citizens, shouldn’t this visit also be a chance to raise issues of concern?
Londoners Grant Cameron, Karl Williams and Suneet Jeerh have been in a Dubai prison since July 2012. They were arrested on suspicion of possessing a synthetic form of cannabis known as ‘spice’ and have accused Emirati authorities of torturing them. The three men have told lawyers at Reprieve, a UK-based human rights group, that they have been subjected to regular beatings, had guns held to their head and suffered electric shocks to their testicles. A report by torture expert Dr. Frank Arnold has stated that, based on the available evidence, their injuries are consistent with acts of torture.
Authorities have also been accused of torturing defendants in the ongoing trial of 94 Emirati citizens who have been charged with setting up an organization aimed at ‘overthrowing the government’. Although foreign media and international observers have been banned from trial sessions, family members have reported that defendants have accused authorities of forced confessions, beatings and harrowing acts of torture.
The trial of the 94 has been a landmark case in the reaction from authorities to increased calls for meaningful political form in the autocratic state. The defendants, which include high-profile human rights lawyers, judges, academics and student leaders, say that they are being persecuted due to their calls for reform that began with petitioning the President for a wholly elected parliament in March 2011. Many of those held are members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association, which is a peaceful Islamic civil society group that has been active in the education and charity sectors since its legal establishment in 1974. Leading human rights expert Geoffrey Robertson QC, who attempted to observe trial proceedings as part of an international delegation, has called on UAE authorities to ‘open this trial up to international observation so justice can be seen to be done’ in a report that describes the violations of fair trial standards thus far.
When David Cameron sits down with Sheikh Khalifa he should be wary about the lure of lucrative arms deals for two reasons. The first is that Cameron should be cautious about further arming a country with a worsening human rights record and whose Crown Prince was exposed as having set up a private mercenary army made up of Columbian mercenaries to, among other reasons, take charge of ‘civil uprisings’. The second is that the UAE appear to be using the attraction of multi-billion pound arms deals to shield themselves from criticism: they have been in discussions with the UK, France and the USA for several years, all involving similar deals yet to materialize.
With credible and uninvestigated claims of torture against both British and Emirati citizens David Cameron should break his silence on UAE abuses. When he visited the Emirates in November 2012 Cameron said that on human rights there are ‘no no-go areas in this relationship’. During this state visit the grave concerns of torture in the UAE must be one area that is explored in detail.