Special study: your nationality determines your fate in UAE prisons

The political influence of states and pressure on Abu Dhabi is an important factor in the release of detainees

23 Aug 2021
The political influence of states and pressure on Abu Dhabi is an important factor in the release of detainees

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the length of time a political prisoner is held in gaol can depend on many factors, though of course the law is not a factor.

Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre (EDAC) carried out a case study on 56 political/opinion detainees of different nationalities to identify the factors that compel the UAE authorities to release the detainees. The study included the following nationalities: 3 detainees from Canada, 3 detainees from the UK, 4 detainees from the US, 6 Jordanian detainees, 26 Lebanese detainees, two Turkish detainees, two Qatari detainees, and 10 Emirati detainees.

The study found that the nationality of the detainee plays the main role in determining the length of his stay in prison, not the sentences imposed by the UAE judiciary, not even the length of the sentence or the type of crime committed against the detainee.

According to the study's data, UAE and Jordan nationality holders spent the most time in prison and were released only after their sentence had expired. As for other nationalities, UAE authorities released detainees even before the expiration of their sentence or acquitted them due to political pressure and sometimes on the basis of undisclosed political collusion.

Court sentences against UAE and Jordanian nationals are shorter than those against foreign nationals accused of espionage, where the penalty is life imprisonment - 25 years - but the sentences imposed on Emiratis and Jordanians do not exceed ten years in the worst cases, all related to opinion charges.

Despite this, UAE authorities release foreign nationality holders under pressure from their governments, while they do not release Emirati nationals and Jordanians because their government does not intervene.

- Detainees released by the UAE based on their nationalities:

1. British Nationality: There is not a single British citizen held in UAE prisons on grounds of conscience, although more than one person with British nationality has been arrested and charged in the past. For example, Matthew Hedges, an academic who was detained by UAE authorities for about seven months for espionage, was sentenced to life imprisonment (25 years) but was released just a week after the sentence was handed down due to a presidential pardon after London put pressure on Abu Dhabi.

Hedges was not the only Briton implicated in this trial, but also David Haigh, whom the UAE authorities accused of cyber slander against the investment bank Gulf Finance House (GFH) and who was released thanks to the political efforts of the British government. In addition, the UAE arrested Ali Issa Ahmed, a British citizen of Somali origin, on charges of sympathising with Qatar, and released him when they learned he held British citizenship before he was formally charged.

2. Qatari Nationality: The UAE authorities released two Qataris, during a period in which relations between the two countries improved: Hamad Al Hammadi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and the second is Dr. Mahmoud al-Jaidah, who was charged by the UAE authorities with belonging to a secret organization, and was sentenced to 7 years in prison. Ironically the Qatari doctor was sentenced in a case involving two Emirati defendants: Saeed Al Buraimi and Abdul Wahed Al Badi, where the two were sentenced to five years in prison, but the UAE authorities did not release them even after the term of the sentence expired, as Al Buraimi remained He has been in prison for 8 years, and was recently released. As for Abdel Wahed Al-Badi, he is still in prison, despite the end of his sentence since March 2018.

3. Omani Nationality: The UAE authorities charged the Omani citizen, Abdullah Al Shamsi, with communicating with a foreign country, and the UAE judiciary sentenced him to life imprisonment (25 years), but he was released after two years of detention under a presidential pardon because of pressure from the Omani authorities.

4. Canadian Nationality: The UAE authorities charged Faten Aman, a Canadian-Egyptian citizen with espionage for Hezbollah, and the Emirati judiciary sentenced her to 10 years in prison, but she was released under a presidential pardon after continuous pressure from the Canadian government. It also acquitted Salim Al-Aradi and his brother Muhammad, who also hold Canadian citizenship, after persistent Canadian efforts to release them.

5. Lebanese Nationality: In 2017, the UAE authorities arrested 26 Lebanese on charges of collaborating with Hezbollah, and the UAE judiciary issued sentences against them ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment. In 2021, the Director of Lebanese Public Security Major General Abbas Ibrahim reached a deal with the UAE authorities to the release of 11 Lebanese, while 15 detainees remain, are currently being negotiated.

7. U.S. Nationality: EDAC monitored the release of 4 Americans accused of crimes related to opinion. They are Shizan Qassem, who was arrested by the Emirati authorities on charges of publishing a video on YouTube mocking Dubai’s youth, and he was released after 9 months without being formally charged or brought to trial. It also released Robert Allan Black, who was arrested by the UAE authorities on charges of photographing prohibited sites, and was released a month after his arrest. There is also businessman Kamal al-Darrat and his son Muhammad, who are of Libyan origin, all of whom were released after the intervention of the American authorities. EDAC does not know are any detainees of conscience in UAE prisons who hold American citizenship.

8. Turkish Nationality: The UAE authorities arrested Dr. Amer Al-Shawa, a Turkish businessman of Palestinian origin, in October 2014 at airport and released him after the intervention of the Turkish authorities without any charge or trial. But after the strained Emirati-Turkish relations, in 2018, the Emirati authorities arrested the Turkish businessman, Mehmet Ozturk, and the Emirati judiciary issued a life sentence against him in prison, and the UAE authorities still refuse to release him due to the tense political atmosphere between the two countries, but EDAC expects his release if relations between the two countries has improved.

(Update: Öztürk was released on November 29, 2021, a few days after Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed visited Ankara).

Nationalities which not released by the UAE authorities

EDAC did not monitor any cases of amnesty for a detainee of conscience holding Emirati or Jordanian nationalities. On the contrary, many Emirati detainees are still in detention despite the end of their sentences. For example, there are currently 9 Emirati detainees in UAE prisons, who have not been released despite the expiry of their sentences many years ago. Such as Abdullah Al-Helou, who completed his sentence on April 22, 2017 -more than 4 years ago- in addition to Abdul Wahed Al-Badi, Khalifa Rabia, Imran Al-Radwan, Mahmoud Al-Hosani, the two brothers Abdullah and Fahd Al-Hajri, and Maryam Al-Balushi, in addition to Amina Al-Abdouli who completed their sentences years ago.

We must not forget the case of the late detainee, Alia Abdel Nour, who died while in detention on 4/5/2019, as a result of her suffering with cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. The UAE government refused to release her despite the fact that Article 32 of the UAE Penal Facilities Law allows the release of a detainee with a disease threatening his life, and EDAC believes that if Alia Abdel Nour had held a foreign nationality other than the Emirati, the Emirati authorities would have released her because they knew that she had a life-threatening disease, but they insisted on her continued detention and neglect of medical care, which aggravated her condition, and ultimately her death.

Jordanian detainees are no better off than Emirati detainees, due to the Jordanian government's lack of action to release them. The Emirati authorities are detaining 5 Jordanian prisoners of conscience, namely Baha Matar and the two brothers, Yasser and Abdullah Abu Bakr, Maher Abu Shawareb, in addition to Ahmed Al-Atoum.

By reviewing the cases monitored by EDAC, we will find that the main factor in releasing detainees for security and political reasons was the nationality of the detainee. After the completion of their sentences, there are currently 9 Emiratis who are being arbitrarily detained despite the expiry of the judicial sentences issued against them.

In the cases of other nationalities, the state's political influence played a key role in the rapid release of detainees, such as the British and Canadian nationalities, but even some countries which do not enjoy wide political influence, such as Lebanon, were able to release the detainees after reaching understandings with the UAE authorities.

EDAC believes that the nationality of the detainee plays a major role in determining his fate, and the efforts of governments represent the most important role. about the detainees.