An Emirati academic facing charges that include his peaceful criticism of the Egyptian and Emirati authorities will have spent more than 18 months in detention by the time the next session of his trial takes place, which occurred yesterday. Nasser bin Ghaith spent nine months in incommunicado detention after his arrest in August 2015, and authorities have kept him in solitary confinement since his transfer to the maximum security block in Al-Sadr jail on May 18, 2016.
Three of the five charges against him clearly violate his right to freedom of expression. Security officers in civilian clothes arrested bin Ghaith in Abu Dhabi on August 18, 2015, four days after he posted a series of tweets that criticized Egyptian authorities. Other charges stem from material he posted online with “sarcastic intent” or to “damage the reputation” of the state or its leaders. Local sources have told Human Rights Watch that prison authorities have denied him access to the medical care he needs for various health conditions.
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“For nine months, bin Ghaith’s family had to deal with not knowing where he was, and since then they’ve had to cope with the knowledge he is suffering in solitary confinement,” said Joe Stork, Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch.
Authorities also accuse bin Ghaith of collaborating with Al-Islah and the Ummah party, groups the authorities classified as terrorist in 2014. Prosecutors have produced no evidence that Al-Islah, which had been active in the UAE for many years, has ever engaged in or advocated violence. Bin Ghaith’s family has denied he was a member of Ummah and his only known association with the group was a lecture in which its founder introduced bin Ghaith as an academic economist.
One of the speech charges bin Ghaith faces is that he posted information “intended to damage the UAE” by “claiming that he was tortured and unjustly accused during a previous trial.” In 2011, bin Ghaith was one of five men convicted of “publicly insulting” UAE officials in relation to their criticism of the UAE’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. At the time of his arrest in 2011, he was a lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi University. Bin Ghaith received a two-year sentence in November 2011 but a court commuted his sentence the following day and he was released, having spent seven months in pretrial detention.
Another speech charge is in connection with a tweet that he posted on August 17, 2015, in which, local media reports said, he made “remarks ridiculing the UAE’s decision to allot land to build a Hindu temple.” Bin Ghaith is also accused of violating the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime law, including article 29, which provides for a maximum of 15 years in prison for publishing material online with “sarcastic intent” or to “damage the reputation” of the state or its leaders.
The charges relating to his criticism of Egypt were brought under Article 166 of the UAE penal code. The Article provides for a maximum of 10 years in prison for anyone who commits any “hostile act” against a foreign country that could expose the UAE to the danger of war or the severance of diplomatic relations.
The charges relating to Al-Islah and the Ummah party apparently concern lectures he gave. The Khaleej Times reported on May 3, 2016, that bin Ghaith had given lectures “that promote these groups.” Video recordings of one such presentation, made in Istanbul and available online, show the Ummah secretary-general, Hassan al-Diqqi, introducing bin Ghaith as an academic. Terrorism Law No. 7 of 2014 enables the UAE authorities to prosecute those who express peaceful opposition to the government, whether in writing or verbally, as terrorists.
Any act that courts deem to have antagonized the state, stirred panic, or undermined national unity can be designated as terrorism under the law, which provides for lengthy prison sentences and the death penalty. Article 31 provides for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for anyone who “cooperates with a terrorist organization while aware of its truth and purpose.” Article 180 of the penal code provides for a maximum of 15 years in prison for anyone who “administers an association, corporation, organization or any branch thereof, with the aim of overthrowing the regime of the State.”
In a May 5, 2016 Twitter statement attributed to bin Ghaith’s family, they rejected Ummah party claims on social media several days earlier that bin Ghaith was the party chairman.
Bin Ghaith’s trial began at the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi on April 4, 2016, but he did not see a lawyer until the second session of the trial, on May 2. In December 2016, the judge referred the case back to the Federal Appeal Court. As a result, his trial effectively began on January 21, 2017, more than 17 months after his initial arrest.
“It’s very easy to become a terrorist in the UAE, all you need to do is say the wrong thing or know the wrong person,” Stork said.