Hiba Zayadin, one of the most prominent researchers specializing in the investigation of human rights violations in the United Arab Emirates, is currently an associate in the Middle East and North Africa department of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
She also worked as a research assistant at HRW and helped investigate human rights violations in Jordan and several GCC countries, but she actually came to prominence more than 4 years ago when she was previously an editor in the Middle East and North Africa department of IFEX, a global network of organizations working to promote and defend freedom of expression.
Zayadin holds a BA in radio and print media, which made her a respected figure in the Arab and international media. Recently, Zayadin participated in several human rights seminars on the state of human rights in the UAE, in which she expressed her concerns about the ongoing violation of freedom of expression by the UAE authorities through repressive laws.
Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre (EDAC) met the Jordanian researcher and asked her about her assessment of the human rights situation in the UAE, her views on the UAE's laws and the increasing reports of human rights violations there. Here is the text of the interview:
EDAC: What is your assessment of the current human rights situation in the UAE?
Zayadin: While the rulers of the UAE are making great efforts to portray the country as progressive, tolerant and respectful of rights, the human rights situation remains deplorable as the UAE authorities have launched a continuous attack on freedom of expression and association since 2011.
UAE authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest and forcibly disappear individuals who criticize the authorities within the country's borders. UAE residents who have spoken out on human rights issues are at risk of arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture, and many are serving long prison sentences or have left the country under duress.
In addition, prisons in the UAE are held in appalling and unsanitary conditions, with widespread overcrowding and a lack of adequate medical care, while UAE authorities continue to prevent representatives of international human rights organizations and UN experts from conducting field research and visiting prisons and detention facilities in the country.
The UAE authorities have also invested heavily in recent years in building extensive electronic surveillance capabilities through the purchase of EU-approved surveillance equipment and extensive support from former U.S. intelligence officials, which they use to target prominent human rights activists, foreign journalists, and even heads of state.
Opponents or critics of UAE policy are not the only ones to suffer from the UAE's notorious State Security Apparatus (SSA) and sophisticated spying software, but also international businessmen, families of opponents and even British football fans.
Once someone disagrees with the authorities, they are likely to face a series of due process violations. HRW has already documented serious allegations of violations of fair trial guarantees in the UAE, particularly in cases related to state security, and these allegations include torture and ill-treatment in SSA facilities.
EDAC: What is your assessment of the UAE's laws used to suppress dissent, such as the State Security Law and the Counterterrorism Law?
Zayadin: The UAE uses vaguely worded and liberally interpreted provisions in the Penal Code and other laws to imprison activists and dissidents. For example, the 2012 Cybercrime Law provides for a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison for publishing material on the internet with "cynical intent" or "damaging the reputation of the state or its leaders." The 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law gives UAE authorities the power to prosecute peaceful critics, political opponents, and human rights activists as terrorists and provides for the death penalty for individuals whose activities "undermine national unity or social peace," which is not specified in the law.
The SSA Law allows the SSA to undermine any political or organized activity by an individual or association that threatens the integrity, security, system of government, or national unity of the state, or harms the economy, weakens the state and creates hostility against it, or undermines confidence in it, and allows SSA officials to use force to the extent necessary to carry out their duties.
The SSA also has the power to establish offices for the apparatus in federal departments, their public agencies, corporations, and quasi-governmental organizations, as well as in the country's embassies and consulates. And the power to deny, stop or approve access to basic rights and government services. UAE citizens or residents cannot appeal a decision made on security grounds.
EDAC: Are these laws in line with international standards?
Zayadin: No, they do not. International standards guarantee freedom of expression, freedom of association, due process guarantees and fair trial.
EDAC: Recently, the media published leaked messages written from prison by human rights defender Ahmed Mansour reporting that he was held in solitary confinement and deprived of his most basic personal rights. What is your opinion on the case of the activist Ahmed Mansour?
Zayadin: Ahmed Mansour is one of the best known human rights activists in the UAE. Before he was arrested more than three years ago, Mansour had dedicated more than a decade of his life to defending human rights in his country and in other countries in the Middle East and was undeterred by several previous attempts by the government to silence him.
Currently, Mansour languishes in the notorious Al-Sadr Prison near Abu Dhabi, where he is serving a ten-year prison sentence handed down on May 29, 2018 by the State Security Department of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi after a grossly unfair trial based on false charges.
The UAE's powerful SSA has violated Mansour's rights for more than a decade through arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, physical assault, state surveillance and inhumane treatment during his detention. He has been deprived of the rights guaranteed to him as a prisoner under international human rights law, including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Ahmed Mansour and all human rights defenders, political activists and other imprisoned opposition figures; solely for the exercise of their basic human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
EDAC: Do you think that human rights organizations have failed to prevent violations against Ahmed Mansour and other human rights defenders in the UAE?
Zayadin: It is not that human rights organizations have failed, but rather that the UAE has so far succeeded in avoiding any real scrutiny of its human rights record by the international community. The UAE has invested a lot of time and money in a public relations strategy that presents itself as a rights-respecting and tolerant country, while at the same time closing off any kind of dissent and closing its borders to international observers. Including UN experts and independent researchers.
It is shocking that so many countries and influencers continue to associate themselves with a government that consistently abuses the rights of its citizens and residents, and one that engages in malignant involvement in foreign conflicts, which includes funnelling massive amounts of money and weapons to abusive domestic armed groups in Yemen and Libya, and hiring foreign fighters to help wage terrorist attacks and proxy wars in the region.
EDAC: About a year ago, audio recordings of the two Emirati detainees, Maryam Al-Balushi and Amina Al Abdouli, were published, in which they talk about the violations of the UAE authorities against them. How did you find these recordings?
Zayadin: It was heartbreaking to hear Mariam and Amina's pleas for help and their description of the prison conditions in which they were being held.
In March 2020, two months after some of their recordings were leaked, HRW responded to reports that Maryam had attempted suicide by calling on the UAE authorities to investigate her prison conditions. Sources close to Maryam and Amina said that they had been held in solitary confinement for more than three weeks prior to this and were denied adequate medical care.
Isolation can be psychologically harmful to any prisoner, causing anxiety, depression, and anger, among other effects, and its effects can be particularly harmful to people in psychological distress.
The stress of a closed monitored environment, a lack of meaningful social contact, and a lack of activity may exacerbate psychological distress and have negative long-term effects on the mental health of prisoners. People in solitary confinement often attempt suicide, or need emergency psychosocial support.
If the UAE is to demonstrate respect for the rule of law, it must first immediately allow independent international monitors access to its prisons, as well as private and regular visits to prisoners.
EDAC: There are multiple reports that the UAE authorities harass the families of political detainees. What types of harassment have you documented?
Zayadin: We have documented various forms of harassment of family members of detained or exiled dissidents at the hands of the UAE’s SSA. They include arbitrary citizenship revocations, travel bans, restrictions on their access to jobs and higher education, and constant monitoring.
EDAC: In your opinion, why do the UAE authorities take revenge on the families of the detainees in this way?
Zayadin: These practices are part of the plan of the UAE authorities, which seem determined to crush dissent in all forms; Therefore, the Emirati authorities have allowed the SSA to use almost unchecked power to punish the families of activists, whether detained or residing abroad, through punitive attacks that amount to collective punishment.