In the middle of the desert, about 110 kilometers from the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, behind the glittering towers, is Al-Razeen Prison, considered the worst notorious prison in the Arab world according to World Prison Brief's classification.
Al-Razeen, nicknamed the "Guantánamo of the UAE," was built in the era of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan as an addiction treatment center (ATC). However, since 2011, it has turned into a prison for revenge acts against political opponents and human rights defenders (HRDs) and is one of the symbols of human rights violations in the Arab world.
The construction of the prison took about 18 years. According to satellite imagery, construction began in 1992 and was completed in 2010. The prison quickly became known inside and outside the UAE after the State Security Apparatus (SSA) housed a large number of political detainees there.
According to UAE law, as a penitentiary, Al-Razeen must be administratively attached to the Directorate General of Punitive and Correctional Establishments (DGPCE), which is headed by Colonel Muhammad Saif Al-Zaabi. However, the SSA has an office in the facility and it is effectively managed by the SSA, while the role of the prison administration is limited to formal supervision.
According to former detainees who reported to the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre (EDAC), the DGPCE monitors Al-Razeen in a formal way by having a person visit the prison monthly to check the number of detainees, and when they complain to him about violations, he replies, "You deserve what happens to you, it's a natural consequence of your betrayal."
Given these historical facts, the prison was originally established as a treatment center and is not designed to hold inmates for extended periods of time. It is therefore a solitary confinement prison, not a reformatory. This makes it not only the "worst notorious prison in the Arab world," but also the "largest solitary confinement prison in the entire region."
Al-Razeen Prison is closely guarded and is designed to look more like a military barracks. One enters through a huge iron gate, in front of which are concrete barriers and checkpoints, followed by another checkpoint for individuals called the reception ward.
This ward is an inspection office where guards of Nepali nationality also work, wearing black uniforms. According to the description of several families who have visited their relatives in prison, the place lacks the minimum standards of hygiene and is infested with insects in summer and winter.
In this prison, visits are allowed once a week, in stark contrast to the protocol that allows visits two or three times a week in other prisons. Since the outbreak of the Corona epidemic, visits have been banned, which means that the families of the detainees have not been able to visit their relatives for about two years.
For some families living outside Abu Dhabi, the distance is too great, as the prison is hundreds of kilometers from cities such as Sharjah. Therefore, the families who want to visit them sometimes have to drive four or five hours, and they have to leave too early so that they do not miss the time of the visit.
The visit takes place for half an hour behind a glass barrier over the phone, and no more than four people - including children - are allowed in at a time. In many cases, visits are canceled and families are prevented from entering without prior notice, or the visit is shortened to just three or four minutes.
Guards also deliberately search families in a humiliating manner, confiscating water and handkerchiefs under the pretext that they are forbidden.
Many families have reported the theft of cloths and personal belongings brought to detainees by guards. In one case, the prison administration prevented families from bringing winter clothes to protect detainees from the extreme cold that prevails in this desert area.
Places of Detention
The prison has ten sections for the detention of prisoners. Each section is a separate building consisting of ten solitary cells that can only house one person, meaning the prison houses 100 detainees, most of whom are political detainees and HRDs.
Each dormitory has a chapel, a dining room and an inspection room. It is equipped with 32 surveillance cameras and each cell has a night surveillance camera.
A cell contains a concrete bed with a sleeping pillow, concrete shelves and a concrete desk, and a toilet in each cell.
Detainees in each ward can meet, pray and eat together, but EDAC recently learned that the prison administration prevents Emirati detainees of conscience from talking or mingling with each other.
Although there are sports fields and a cafeteria in the prison, the prison administration does not allow detainees to engage in any activities and prohibits them from bringing papers, pens, books or newspapers.
Abuses in prison
In general, Al-Razeen Prison is not subject to any restrictions or legal supervision and is the scene of all kinds of violations against detainees. The prison administration has consistently mistreated detainees of conscience and punished them with the harshest means for the slightest reasons, such as solitary confinement, humiliating searches, starvation, prohibition of visits, medical negligence and subjection to high or low temperatures without meeting the minimum requirements, as well as many forms of mistreatment of detainees, especially the detainees in the "UAE94" case, as a form of abuse and humiliation.
All kinds of human rights violations were documented in this prison, and detainees went on hunger strike several times, individually or collectively, to protest the inhumane conditions of detention and degrading treatment of detainees.
The most famous hunger strike took place on 15 June 2017, when many detainees, most of them from the "UAE94" case, went on hunger strike because guards attacked them at night in their rooms, where they were stripped of their underwear for the purpose of searching them. Some detainees were sexually harassed by prison guards.
In addition, the prison administration deliberately exposes detainees of conscience to extreme heat or cold. In summer, it deliberately turns off the air conditioners, and in winter, it turns them on continuously and deprives detainees of proper blankets.
These practices constitute a form of inhumane treatment and violate the dignity and humanity of detainees, as well as their right to adequate clothing under Article 17 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) of May 13, 1977: "Every prisoner who is not allowed to wear his own clothing shall be provided with an outfit ofclothing suitable for the climate and sufficient to keep him in good health. Such clothing shall in no case be degrading or humiliating."
The policy of medical neglect is an integral part of the methods used by the prison administration against prisoners.
Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith has gone on hunger strike several times to protest the withdrawal of his medication for high blood pressure, which has led to a sharp deterioration in his health.
Many torture methods are used in this prison that were also practiced in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, such as sleep deprivation by strobe lights or loud music during the day and night. While the prisoners were sleeping, this method was used against Dr. Muhammad Al-Roken, causing him to injure his ear, panic and faint. when he was blindfolded and taken to the prison clinic, he was found to be suffering from ear infection and high blood pressure.
The prison administration also uses the method of solitary confinement for long periods of time to punish prisoners and drive them into nervous breakdowns. The prisoner is placed in a cramped solitary cell with insufficient space for sleeping and which is dark and receives no sunlight.
Periodically, the prison administration isolates prisoners from the outside world by denying them telephone calls, visits or communication for long periods of time, including forbidding them to perform Friday or Eid prayers.
Most prisoners of conscience in Al-Razeen Prison have been denied visits since 2020 under the pretext of the Corona outbreak. Many of them are prevented from contacting their families for months, or are locked in a solitary cell that does not receive sunlight.
This is not just a matter of violating prisoners' rights or torturing them, but also a systematic policy aimed at humiliating prisoners of conscience and their families and driving them to the brink of nervous breakdown. Punitive measures that reduce the number or quality of visits make the prison sentence unbearable, expose the prisoner to psychological disorders and limit his ability to adapt to life in society after his release.
Moreover, the humiliating searches and torture that deprive detainees of sleep or expose them to freezing temperatures affect not only their physical health and are not just documented violations, but systematic humiliation aimed at breaking detainees psychologically.
Al-Razeen Prison is not a penal institution where human rights violations are committed. Rather, it is a humiliation tool designed and developed over many years to break free voices in the UAE, and it is the saw of the UAE authorities to claim the future of academics, activists, and human rights defenders in order to tear them into pieces that can no longer reform.