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In October 2016, the president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) passed a Federal Law Decree 7/2016 amending the Emirates’ penal code. The new law illustrates the UAE’s blatant lack of respect and commitment for international human rights standards and continued obstruction of its citizens’ basic rights and freedoms.
Before delving into the details of this law, let us take a closer look at how the UAE’s judiciary works to understand how dangerous the new law can be.
In 2013, 94 Emirati political activists were arrested and condemned to prison sentences ranging from seven to ten years. These activists, including lawyers, human rights defenders and students, who advocated for peaceful change and reform in their country, were held in secret detention, tortured and charged with “harming the interests of the state” and “running a secret organisational structure aimed at overthrowing the government.”
Tried and sentenced by the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court – a court of first and last instance whose decisions may not be appealed – following an unfair mass trial that was based on confessions extracted under torture, these men were punished for having merely exercised their rights to freedom of opinion, expression and association. In 2014, a group of UN experts deemed their detention arbitrary and called for their release, but the authorities never freed them.
This unfair trial of peaceful dissidents, one of many in the UAE, unfolded in 2013. Had they been tried today, after the entry into force of the new 2016 Penal Code, these 94 men would have spent their lives in prison, or worse, been put to death.
Indeed, the new law expands the application of the death penalty for a number of crimes, which are defined in very broad and unclear terms and can be used to punish just about anything. One particularly concerning article states that anyone found guilty of establishing any kind of organisation that aims at “overthrowing the government” or “fighting against the constitutional principles on which the system of government was built” shall be put to death or spend his life in prison.
In practice, this means that any political opposition group or any group calling for constitutional reforms can be targeted and have all of its members or supporters prosecuted and sentenced to death. The same sentence is replicated in another article outlawing groups that endanger “state security” or the “interests of the state.”
In the UAE, where people have been charged with “harming the interests of the State” and prosecuted before the State Security Chamber for a simple tweet, it becomes easy to imagine how these amendments open a pandora’s box of violations and abuse.
What is concerning is that these provisions make no mention of violent acts or incitation to violence and as such, can be used to silence any peaceful association – a right guaranteed by the universal declaration of human rights – under the pretext that it is harming the interests of the state.
What’s more, these amendments further stifle free speech and provide a disproportionate protection for the ruler and the system, which can never be criticised. The law punishes with a minimum of fifteen years in prison and a maximum of 25 years in prison, anyone who “insults the president of the UAE”.
Simply put, and to illustrate this law’s absurdity and the danger it poses, imagine applying this provision to American citizens in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Likewise, anyone who “insults, mocks or harms the reputation or prestige of the state, its emblem, its flag or any of its institutions” risks 10 to 25 years of imprisonment.
These articles are in direct violation of international human rights law that state that defamation should not be punished with prison sentences but most of all, that defamation laws should not shield heads of state from criticism, as freedom of expression cannot be limited to protect subjective values such as the “prestige of the state”. There are good chances that the new penal code will be used to stifle human rights defenders who, for example, criticise the judiciary for its lack of independence.
These new developments are extremely worrying and given the UAE’s poor human rights record, must be revised to reflect agreed international standards and to decrease the risk of arbitrary application of such overly broad and vaguely worded provisions.
The UAE must take a step further and enshrine its commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms by ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Think twice before you speak in the UAE, you could end up spending 25 years in jail next time you tweet.