Tweeting from ‘paradise’, one disappearance at a time
The oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a world-renowned flashy, dynamic nation situated in the Persian Gulf. The latest majestic Emirati project, a cluster of luxury artificial islands called ‘Heart of Europe’, claims to ‘capture the spirit of Europe’ in the heart of the Middle East. It is even spearheading the world’s only outdoor climate-controlled city, to put European weather, such as rain and snow, onto the streets of Dubai.
But with its Europe-inspired playground for the rich, the UAE has omitted to include the quintessentially European consensus of the right to free speech. And so, when 3 young UAE women exercised their right to freedom of expression on Twitter, they were forcibly disappeared.
Sisters Asma, Mariam and Alyazia Al-Suwaidi went missing on 15 February 2015, shortly after tweeting and writing a blog post. They were ordered to an Abu Dhabi police station and held in secret detention without access to a lawyer and no contact with their family or the outside world for 3 months.
Alyazia, who obtained a doctorate in Cultural Communications from Kingston University, London, in 2013; Miriam, who was a Business Psychology student at London Metropolitan; and their sister Asma, who worked in the social media office for Sheikha Fatima Bin Mubarak (the mother of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi), were using their Twitter profiles to protest about the 10-year jail sentence of their political activist brother, Dr Issa Khalifa-Al Suwaidi.
He was sentenced in a mass trial in March 2014, dubbed the UAE94, as part of the Emirates’ crackdown on political dissent. Lawyers from the Emirates Centre of Human Rights who observed the trial found examples of torture including: confinement in inadequate-sized cells, extreme cold, sleep deprivation, lack of toilet facilities, being blindfolded, solitary confinement, prolonged interrogations, suffocation and asphyxiation, and severe beatings.
Asma tweeted: ‘I searched and did not read in my brother’s case any reasonable argument leading to his isolation and imprisonment depriving him of life for 10 years.’ (Translated from Arabic)
Miriam tweeted: ‘I can’t forget the moment you put your hand on the glass to try to reach mum’s hand, she misses you so much.’ (Translated from Arabic)
An olive branch was extended by the UAE when the Al-Suwaidi sisters were released to their family on 15 May, after 3 months of international campaigns. But there are still 6 forcibly disappeared Emiratis whose status since 2012/13 is ‘location unknown’.
Enforced disappearances are a method of secret detention, where detainees are not officially charged or detained and governments refuse to disclose their whereabouts. The detainees become invisible to the outside world and fall through a legal loophole, putting them at the mercy of their interrogators.
When the Al-Suwaidi sisters disappeared, Amnesty International campaigned for their release, says Mansoureh Mills, Amnesty campaigner on the UAE, Iran and Kuwait:
‘The UAE sells itself as a progressive nation in the Middle East and a champion of women’s empowerment. But if people exercise their right to peaceful free speech by criticizing the government, they can be shipped off to secret detention facilities. This is a crime under international law and women held under such conditions are at risk of sexual violence and torture.’
It is not just the UAE where arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances blight basic international human rights. This is an international problem, with countries such as Sri Lanka, Peru and Mexico also guilty of using the practice.
The Guardian recently uncovered a case in the US in which 13 witnesses allege that Chicago police used a secret warehouse, called Homan Square, to illegally detain and torture them (including using sexual violence) until they agreed to be informers or to obtain firearms.
In Egypt, disabled female photojournalist, Esraa El-Taweel, 23, was forcibly disappeared for 16 days before being charged. Dr Salah Attia Mohamed Fiki and his 20-year-old son, Osama Salah Attia Fiki, were reported to the UN as victims of enforced disappearance after their arrest by Egyptian police on 23 April 2015. A human rights group in Egypt told the Middle East Eye that over 100 Egyptians have vanished in what are assumed cases of state-enforced disappearances.
Amnesty International reports that in Mexico over 25,000 people are missing, many thought to be victims of enforced disappearance either by the local authorities or in complicity with criminal gangs.
Iguala, Mexico, made international headlines when 43 students from a leftwing teachers’ college were abducted in September last year. After months of investigation, the public hearsay was the students were abducted by the police and handed over to a gang, who killed and burned them and threw their bodies into a river. Iguala’s mayor is currently in prison on suspicion of ordering the abduction.
International law states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and, if arrested, a right to humane conditions of detention and the right to a legal representative.
But enforced disappearance is an angry clenched jaw biting the heart out of human rights under the cover of cloak-and-dagger secrecy. In 2014 alone, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) recorded 43,000 unresolved cases, some committed decades ago.
Bulldozing free speech
The UAE’s wrangle with democracy versus immoderate state rule clashes spectacularly with its polished international image. This May, Ahmad Abdullah Al Wahdi was arrested by the UAE authorities for ‘insulting rulers’ on Twitter and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Qatar, BBC journalists were held in a cell while on a PR trip this May to promote the 2022 World Cup.
The reporters were investigating rumours that migrant Nepali workers building World Cup facilities were boarding in sub-standard accommodation. During their detention, an interrogator shouted at the journalists: ‘This is not Disneyland, you can’t stick your camera anywhere.’
‘The UAE sells itself as a progressive nation in the Middle East and a champion of women’s empowerment. But if people exercise their right to peaceful free speech by criticizing the government, they can be shipped off to secret detention facilities'
At the Human Rights Council’s 29th meeting in June (HRC29), the UN expressed concern at freedom of expression clampdowns and human rights abuses in the UAE, stating: ‘Expressing criticism of one’s country or its leaders and communicating with other political actors in a peaceful way should not be categorized as an attempt to overthrow a government.’
Campaign groups are worried the UAE’s latest enforced disappearances will set a future precedent. Shazia Arshad, of the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE), says:
‘We are concerned by the continued increasing levels of political repression and human rights violations in the Emirates. Since 2011, activists’ and campaigners’ voices have been curtailed and the arrest of the Suwaidi sisters is a worrying development. By going after relatives of detainees, the Emirati authorities instill a climate of fear.’
Prominent academic and activist Dr Nasser bin Ghaith is the UAE’s latest victim of enforced disappearance, which is continuing despite international condemnation. He was arrested on 18 August and has been held in secret detention since, at risk of torture and ill treatment.
Amnesty International’s Middle East North Africa Programme Acting Director, Said Boumedouha, says: ‘Dr Nasser bin Ghaith’s whereabouts must be immediately disclosed and he must be released if being held for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.’
The UAE’s Big Brother glare over its people’s use of social media is clearly unwavering. Its glossy utopian image can never resemble reality if the people who build the cultural foundations of those paradise islands have their intellectual and political dignity crushed, their names smeared and their free speech gagged.
30 August is the United Nations International Day of the Disappeared, also known as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.