Posts Tagged ‘UAE’

It is not just NSO – Loujain Al-Hathloul sues Spyware Maker DarkMatter

December 17, 2021
Laptop with broken screen

As announced on 9 December 2021, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a lawsuit to on behalf of Saudi human rights defender Loujain Al Hathloul against spying software maker DarkMatter and three of its former executives for illegally hacking her iPhone to secretly track her communications and whereabouts.

AlHathloul is among the victims of an illegal spying program created and run by former U.S. intelligence operatives, including the three defendants named in the lawsuit, who worked for a U.S. company hired by United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the wake of the Arab Spring protests to identify and monitor activists, journalists, rival foreign leaders, and perceived political enemies.

Reuters broke the news about the hacking program called Project Raven in 2019, reporting that when UAE transferred the surveillance work to Emirati firm DarkMatter, the U.S. operatives, who learned spycraft working for the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies, went along and ran DarkMatter’s hacking program, which targeted human rights activists like AlHathloul, political dissenters, and even Americans residing in the U.S.

DarkMatter executives Marc Baier, Ryan Adams, and Daniel Gericke, working for their client UAE—which was acting on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)—oversaw the hacking project, which exploited a vulnerability in the iMessage app to locate and monitor targets. Baier, Adams, Gericke, all former members of U.S. intelligence or military agencies, designed and operated the UAE cybersurveillance program, also known as Project DREAD (Development Research Exploitation and Analysis Department), using malicious code purchased from a U.S. company.

Baier, who resides in UAE, Adams, a resident of Oregon, and Gericke, who lives in Singapore, admitted in September to violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and prohibitions on selling sensitive military technology under a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.

Companies that peddle their surveillance software and services to oppressive governments must be held accountable for the resulting human rights abuses,” said EFF Civil Liberties Director David Greene. “The harm to Loujain AlHathloul can never be undone. But this lawsuit is a step toward accountability.

AlHathloul is a leader in the movement to advance the rights of women in Saudi Arabia [see also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/1a6d84c0-b494-11ea-b00d-9db077762c6c].


DarkMatter intentionally directed the code to Apple servers in the U.S. to reach and place malicious software on AlHathloul’s iPhone, a violation of the CFAA, EFF says in a complaint filed in federal court in Oregon. The phone was initially hacked in 2017, gaining access to her texts, email messages, and real-time location data. Later, AlHathloul was driving on the highway in Abu Dhabi when she was arrested by UAE security services, and forcibly taken by plane to the KSA, where she was imprisoned twice, including at a secret prison where she was subject to electric shocks, flogging, and threats of rape and death.

“Project Raven went beyond even the behavior that we have seen from NSO Group, which has been caught repeatedly having sold software to authoritarian governments who use their tools to spy on journalists, activists, and dissidents,” said EFF Cybersecurity Director Eva Galperin. “Dark Matter didn’t merely provide the tools; they oversaw the surveillance program themselves.

While EFF has long pressed for the need to reform the CFAA, this case represents a straightforward application of the CFAA to the sort of egregious violation of users’ security that everyone agrees the law was intended to address.

“This is a clear-cut case of device hacking, where DarkMatter operatives broke into AlHathloul’s iPhone without her knowledge to insert malware, with horrific consequences,” said Mukund Rathi, EFF attorney and Stanton Fellow. “This kind of crime is what the CFAA was meant to punish.” In addition to CFAA violations, the complaint alleges that Baier, Adams, and Gericke aided and abetted in crimes against humanity because the hacking of AlHathloul’s phone was part of the UAE’s widespread and systematic attack against human rights defenders, activists, and other perceived critics of the UAE and KSA.

The law firms of Foley Hoag LLP and Boise Matthews LLP are co-counsel with EFF in this matter.

EFF also welcomed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent ruling that spyware vendor NSO Group, as a private company, did not have foreign sovereign immunity from WhatsApp’s lawsuit alleging hacking of the app’s users. Courts should similarly deny immunity to DarkMatter and other surveillance and hacking companies who directly harm Internet users around the world.

For the complaint:
https://www.eff.org/document/alhathloul-v-darkmatter

For more on state-sponsored malware:
https://www.eff.org/issues/state-sponsored-malware Contact: Karen Gullo

https://www.eff.org/press/releases/saudi-human-rights-activist-represented-eff-sues-spyware-maker-darkmatter-violating

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2021/12/eff-court-deny-foreign-sovereign-immunity-darkmatter-hacking-journalist

Interpol: UAE Major General and Chinese Public Security Official are not good candidates for Interpol!

November 16, 2021

INTERPOL is going to have its General Assembly on the 23 – 24 November 2021 in Lyon. The election of both its President and a member of the Executive Committee look terrible. Already in 2017 there was a problem: see https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/04/20/interpol-headed-by-chinese-police-official-human-rights-defenders-fearsome/. (The former chairman of Interpol Meng Hongwei was also a ministry of public security official, serving as vice-minister. However, Meng’s Interpol term ended prematurely in 2018 when he disappeared during a visit to China and was later jailed for 13 years on bribery charges, amid Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign targeting millions of officials.)

Several prominent members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have warned that the appointment of the Emirati official Major General Ahmed Nasser Al-Raisi to the position of president of Interpol would “undermine the mission and reputation” of the global police organisation. In a letter sent to the European Commission president, three MEPs urged European Union (EU) states to elect an Interpol chief that comes “from a country with an established criminal justice system and longstanding respect for human rights”.

The Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), the French League for Human Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights are also concerned about the candidacy of Major General Ahmed Nasser Al-Raisi call to reject him.

Ahmed Al-Raisi has been Inspector General of the UAE’s Interior Ministry since 2015 and is also in charge of the UAE police force. Under his leadership, forces have carried out repeated and systematic arbitrary detentions and tortured prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders with complete impunity. One of the most emblematic cases concerns human rights defender Ahmed Mansour. Winner of the 2015 Martin Ennals Award and member of the GCHR steering committee, Ahmed Mansour has been imprisoned since March 2017 and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment in 2018 for, according to the authorities, criticising the Emirati government and tarnishing his country’s image on social networks. Since 2017, he has been held in solitary confinement in Al-Sadr prison, in a 4m2 cell, without access to medical, hygiene, water or sanitary facilities. The inhumane conditions of Ahmed Mansour’s imprisonment have been the subject of several appeals without any favourable response from the Emirati authorities. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/ahmed-mansoor/]

According to reports of several NGOs, torture is used systematically in detention centres in order to obtain confessions of guilt or testimonies against other detainees, particularly in the prisons of Al-Razeen, Al-Wathba and Al-Sadr. In addition, some prisons, such as Al-Awair prison and the Al-Barsha police detention centre, are overcrowded and unsanitary, making it extremely difficult to comply with social distancing and recommended hygiene practices in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic….In addition, prisoners are regularly denied medication and medical treatment for pre-existing health problems or illnesses developed during detention. Several UN experts have condemned these practices and expressed their concerns to the UAE authorities in recent years, but the authorities have not changed their practices.

Such inhumane treatment is recurrent in the UAE and is in flagrant contravention of international law and the Nelson Mandela Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners. While Major General Al-Raisi is, by virtue of his office, responsible for investigating complaints of abuse by the police and security forces in his country, none have been conclusively investigated. In the absence of any enforceable accountability mechanisms in the UAE, the GCHR has filed a complaint in France, against General Major Al-Raisi for acts of torture. Unfortunately, Interpol did not listen: https://www.businessinsider.com/interpol-president-uae-official-accused-of-torture-elected-2021-11

Another problematic candidate is Hu Binchen, the deputy director-general of the Chinese Ministry of international cooperation department, who is one of three candidates vying for two seats as Asia delegates on the committee.

The 13-member executive committee oversees the work of Interpol’s general secretariat and helps set future policy. Interpol controls a number of databases containing identifying details of people and property, which assist in global policing. It also operates the system of red notices, which are requests “to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition”.

However, there are long-running concerns over governments or authorities misusing the system to track down dissidents. While there are clear rules against the use of red notices on refugees, high-profile cases have shown countries are repeatedly able to obtain red notices, against Interpol policy.

Activists and advocacy groups, as well as 50 members of an international cross-party group of legislators, the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China, have lodged their objections at Hu’s potential election to the committee, noting alleged attempts by China to use the red notice system to target exiled Uyghur activists.

“By electing Hu Binchen to the executive committee, the general assembly would be giving a green light to the PRC government to continue their misuse of Interpol and would place the tens of thousands of Hong Kong, Uyghur, Tibetan, Taiwanese and Chinese dissidents living abroad at even graver risk,” said the letter from the Alliance, citing the July detention of Uyghur activist Idris Hassan in Morocco.

Allowing Interpol to be used as a vehicle for the PRC government’s repressive policies does great harm to its international standing.”

The human rights group Safeguard Defenders said the Chinese ministry’s international cooperation department, in which Hu is a senior official, oversaw operations named Sky Net and Fox Hunt, chasing down fugitives overseas. It alleged “teams were sent by the ministry “to intimidate and harass ethnic Chinese to force them to return to China ‘voluntarily’”. In a report also released on Monday, Safeguard Defenders said there had been a tenfold increase in the issuance of Chinese red notices between 2000 and 2020.

A later development is that 259 organizations, call on INTERPOL to immediately ban the Myanmar military junta from representing Myanmar as a member of INTERPOL. They demand that the military junta is excluded from the upcoming 89th INTERPOL General Assembly and all benefits and future cooperation that membership entails. [see: https://www.forum-asia.org/?p=36143]

https://www.fidh.org/en/issues/litigation/open-letter-to-the-representatives-of-the-member-states-of-the

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/eu-lawmakers-say-uae-police-chief-would-undermine-interpols-reputation

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/15/chinese-official-seeks-interpol-role-sparking-fears-for-dissidents

https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/china-s-nominee-to-interpol-committee-opposed-by-lawmakers-from-20-countries-121111600231_1.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/20/uae-nominee-interpol-ahmed-naser-al-raisi-torture-claims

https://www.thestar.com/news/world/europe/2021/11/22/interpol-election-raises-rights-concerns-about-fair-policing.html

Brian Dooley on What’s Happening Behind the UAE’s Public Relations Mask

November 1, 2021

In a podcast of 29 October, 2021 Brian Dooley [see also:https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/05/13/brian-dooley-to-advice-mary-lawlor/] takes to task the Emirates who continue to hold Ahmed Mansoor in detention. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/ahmed-mansoor/]

For many years, the United Arab Emirates has been one of Washington’s most repressive military allies. Its brutal targeting of human rights defenders, its leadership role with Saudi Arabia in the war on Yemen, and its crushing of any internal political dissent has made it a focus of Human Rights First’s advocacy for a decade. 

I visited the Emirates for Human Rights First in 2015 to research how bad things were, and things have only become worse — the few activists who weren’t intimidated into silence in 2015 have now been pushed into exile or sentenced to long terms in prison.  

Washington continues to enable the Emirates’ dictatorship with weapons and political support; in April the Biden administration confirmed it would proceed with a $23 billion arms deal. But having powerful friends in Washington, and pushing Dubai’s glitzy image of tourism and shopping, can’t hide the reality of what really happens in the UAE. 

Click below or listen here to my appearance on a podcast by the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) for more on what’s happening in the UAE behind their PR mask. 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/episode/4ax316cIyNvRqKdeBM6EuT?utm_source=generator&theme=

Internet Censorship 2021: A Global Map of Internet Restrictions

October 19, 2021

On October 12 I referred the report Freedom on the Net [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/10/12/report-freedom-on-the-net-2021/ and on 24 April to the latest RSF report [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/04/24/world-press-freedom-index-2021-is-out/]. Now my attention was drawn to another tool to measure internet censorship:

Nearly 60 percent of the world’s population (4.66 billion people) uses the internet. It’s our source of instant information, entertainment, news, and social interactions.

But where in the world can citizens enjoy equal and open internet access – if anywhere?

In this exploratory study, our researchers have conducted a country-by-country comparison to see which countries impose the harshest internet restrictions and where citizens can enjoy the most online freedom. This includes restrictions or bans for torrenting, pornography, social media, and VPNs, and restrictions or heavy censorship of political media. This year, we have also added the restriction of messaging/VoIP apps.

Although the usual culprits take the top spots, a few seemingly free countries rank surprisingly high. With ongoing restrictions and pending laws, our online freedom is at more risk than ever.

We scored each country on six criteria. Each of these is worth two points aside from messaging/VoIP apps which is worth one (this is due to many countries banning or restricting certain apps but allowing ones run by the government/telecoms providers within the country). The country receives one point if the content—torrents, pornography, news media, social media, VPNs, messaging/VoIP apps—is restricted but accessible, and two points if it is banned entirely. The higher the score, the more censorship. https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/IBnNS/3/

The worst countries for internet censorship

  1. North Korea and China (11/11) – No map of online censorship would be complete without these two at the top of the list. There isn’t anything either of them doesn’t heavily censor thanks to their iron grip over the entire internet. Users are unable to use western social media, watch porn, or use torrents or VPNs*. And all of the political media published in the country is heavily censored and influenced by the government. Both also shut down messaging apps from abroad, forcing residents to use ones that have been made (and are likely controlled) within the country, e.g. WeChat in China. Not only does WeChat have no form of end-to-end encryption, the app also has backdoors that enable third parties to access messages.
  2. Iran (10/11): Iran blocks VPNs (only government-approved ones are permitted, which renders them almost useless) but doesn’t completely ban torrenting. Pornography is also banned and social media is under increasing restrictions. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all blocked with increasing pressures to block other popular social media sites. Many messaging apps are also banned with authorities pushing domestic apps and services as an alternative. Political media is heavily censored.
  3. Belarus, Qatar, Syria, Thailand, Turkmenistan, and the UAE (8/11): Turkmenistan, Belarus, and the UAE all featured in our “worst countries” breakdown in 2020.  But this year they are joined by Qatar, Syria, and Thailand. All of these countries ban pornography, have heavily censored political media, restrict social media (bans have also been seen in Turkmenistan), and restrict the use of VPNs. Thailand saw the biggest increase in censorship, including the introduction of an online porn ban which saw 190 adult websites being taken down. This included Pornhub (which featured as one of the top 20 most visited websites in the country in 2019).

https://comparite.ch/internetcensorshipmap

United Arab Emirates: Dubai Expo continues whitewashing – EU Parliament call for boycott

October 4, 2021

Expo 2020 On 1 October 2021. Human Right Watch published “UAE: Tolerance Narrative a Sham Censorship; Surveillance; Prison or Barred Entry for Critics”. It stated that the United Arab Emirates authorities are using Expo 2020 Dubai to promote a public image of openness that is at odds with the government’s efforts to prevent scrutiny of its rampant systemic human rights violations. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/09/03/uaes-new-human-rights-institute-sounds-like-a-joke/

Expo 2020 is a prominent global cultural event built on the free exchange of ideas. Domestic critics are routinely arrested and, since at least 2015, UAE authorities have ignored or denied requests for access to the country by United Nations experts, human rights researchers, and critical academics and journalists. The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government. “Dozens of UAE peaceful domestic critics have been arrested, railroaded in blatantly unfair trials, and condemned to many years in prison simply for trying to express their ideas on governance and human rights,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Expo 2020 is yet another opportunity for the UAE to falsely present itself on the world stage as open, tolerant, and rights-respecting while shutting down the space for politics, public discourse, and activism.” Expo 2020 is being held from October 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, with the theme, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.”

This event, as with other expensive entertainment, cultural, sports, and educational events before it, is designed to promote a public relations image of the UAE as an open, progressive, and tolerant country while its abusive authorities forcefully bar all peaceful criticism and dissent, Human Rights Watch said.

…. Major international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have also faced increased restrictions on their ability to visit and engage with government officials on human rights issues. Staff of both organizations were refused access to prisons and high-profile trials, and eventually admission to the country. UAE authorities have rarely responded to either organization’s requests for information or meetings.

The UAE has embarked on a decades-long effort to whitewash its reputation on the international stage. These efforts were made explicit in the government’s 2017 Soft Power Strategy, which includes cultivating “cultural and media diplomacy” as a central pillar and has a stated objective “to establish [the UAE’s] reputation as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes all people from across the world.” Expo 2020 is the latest in a long list of investments in ambitious cultural and educational projects that seek to further that goal, Human Rights watch said. Others include the acquisition of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University outposts, establishing Dubai as a luxury tourism destination, and hosting global cultural events such as the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi and the upcoming World Expo in Dubai.  

While leading international academic and cultural institutions first established a presence in the UAE with the promise to serve the public good by promoting “ideas, discourse, and critical thinking,” they have since remained silent in the face of increasing repression of basic rights. … Some of those whose communications and devices were targeted by the government surveillance and who are residents of the UAE, were subsequently arrested and abused in detention.Among them is the prominent Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. [See also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A] A UAE court sentenced Mansoor to 10 years in prison in May 2018 following a grossly unfair trial, partly based on private email exchanges and WhatsApp conversations. A 2016 Citizen Lab report demonstrated five other cases where arrests or convictions of users followed malware attacks against their Twitter accounts from 2012 to 2015. This repressive environment, coupled with the authorities’ use of advanced spyware to target anyone deemed a threat to the country, has led citizens, residents, and even journalists, academics, businessmen, and others who frequent the UAE to warily restrict their public criticism of the authorities. As one journalist said about their office based in Dubai, “The head of office is shit scared of the authorities … There is a practice of holding back stories if they can’t get official comment – which they often can’t. They don’t go hard on the UAE.” Governments and businesses have a human rights responsibility to avoid contributing to UAE authorities’ efforts to whitewash its abuses. As countries prepare to showcase their pavilions at the Dubai EXPO, they should help prevent the UAE’s whitewashing attempts by either advocating for the UAE to unconditionally release all those unjustly detained for exercising their right to free expression and to regularly open up the country, including its jails and its courts, to scrutiny by independent researchers and monitors, or not participate in the EXPO, Human Rights Watch said. “With widespread arrests, intimidation, surveillance, and retaliation that citizens and residents face for speaking out, Expo participants and other countries should raise concerns about rights abuses in the UAE,” ..The HRW report contains a lot more detail about the media repression.

The European Parliament has called on the United Arab Emirates to immediately release three prominent human rights defenders and urged EU member states to boycott next month’s Dubai Expo in order to “signal their disapproval” of rights violations. In a resolution adopted on Thursday, the parliament demanded the “unconditional release” of Ahmed Mansoor, Mohammed al-Roken, and Nasser bin Ghaith, as well as all other Emirati political activists and dissidents. Mansoor was arrested in 2017 on charges of publishing false information and rumours, and using social media to “damage the country’s reputation”.

According to letters that were published online in July, the 52-year-old said he had been held in solitary confinement since his arrest, cut off from the outside world as well as fellow prisoners.

Roken, a university professor and human rights lawyer, was arrested in July 2012, and convicted in July 2013 over charges of “establishing an organisation seeking to bring about the government’s overthrow”. He was sentenced to 10-years in prison and stood trial as part of a group that became known as the “UAE 94”. Former US intelligence officials admit to hacking for UAE at hearing in Virginia. See also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/7B69B1D9-E359-444A-B448-02E8B9C0750C

Meanwhile, Ghaith, an economist, and human rights defender was arrested in August 2015 and jailed in March 2017 for 10 years over tweets that criticised Egypt, a key ally of the Gulf country. Ghaith had tweeted a picture of a burnt building in Cairo on 11 August 2015, a few days before the anniversary of the killing of hundreds of protesters in Rabaa square. 

In the resolution, which passed with 383 votes in favour, 47 towards and with 259 abstentions, the parliament criticised Mansoor’s prolonged detention and urged member states to boycott the upcoming World Fair in Dubai.

“In order to signal their disapproval of the human rights violations in the UAE, [the European Parliament] invites the international companies sponsoring Expo 2020 Dubai to withdraw their sponsorship and encourages member states not to participate in the event,” the resolution said.

Dubai has poured billions of dollars into Expo 2020, hoping the exhibition will generate new business and spur its economy amid a slowdown in growth due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Thursday’s strongly-worded resolution also condemned the role the UAE played in the extradition of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. Hathloul was kidnapped in the UAE in 2018 and flown into Saudi Arabia against her will, where she faced a trial based on a loosely worded terror law often used to prosecute activists. She was released in February after almost three years in prison but is subject to a five-year travel ban and other restrictions.

On 15 September 2021 the Middle East Monitor has reported that the UAE had placed an additional 4 human rights defenders on its terror list:

Authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have placed 38 individuals and 15 companies on a terrorism list, saying they are “keen to target networks linked to the financing of terrorism.”

The updated list, issued by the Council of Ministers under Ministerial Resolution No. 83 of 2021, includes the names of four Emirati opposition figures living in exile: Ahmed Al Shaiba Al Nuaimi, Muhammad Saqr Al Zaabi, Hamad Al Shamsi and Saeed Al Tunaiji.

The UAE seeks to curb the political and legal activities of these activists who document human rights violations in the Emirates, WAM reported.

The four opposition activists are believed to be part of a small group that survived the state security apparatus’ 2012 arrest campaign of dozens of academics, lawyers, community leaders and students calling for political reform. However, they were outside the country and then tried in absentia in a case known as the “UAE94”.

The four opposition figures had announced the formation of the “Emirati League Against Normalisation” more than a year ago and issued a statement calling the normalisation agreement with the Israeli occupation a departure from the principles on which the UAE was founded.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/01/uae-tolerance-narrative-sham-0

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/uae-european-parliament-release-political-prisoners-boycott-dubai-expo

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210915-uae-puts-4-human-rights-defenders-on-terror-list/

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/uae-ahmed-mansoor-activist-former-un-official-urges-release

UAE’s new human rights institute: sounds like a joke

September 3, 2021

On 2 September 2021 Deutsche Welle reports on “UAE’s new human rights institute: Real change or ‘image washing’?” State media has trumpeted the creation of a new human rights body set to work in line with global principles. But the UAE’s critics say the move is audacious and a joke.

THe UAE has been heavily criticized for the way it treats international laborers and human rights defenders [see e.g.: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/06/15/mary-lawlor-calls-again-on-uae-to-release-prominent-human-rights-defenders/ and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/09/02/vloggers-selling-their-souls-to-boost-image-of-arab-regimes/]

The United Arab Emirates announced earlier this week that it would set up an independent national human rights organization. The new institution will open an office in Abu Dhabi and, according to the UAE’s state media, “aims to promote and protect human rights and freedoms” in accordance with the local and international laws and guidelines.

The new organization — official name: UAE National Human Rights Institution — already has a hotline that anyone can call if they wish to report human rights abuses.

DW tried calling the number over two days this week. Even though local media said the hotline was active, several attempts failed. Either the calls were not answered or the connection was dropped. DW has reached out to the UAE Embassy in Berlin for further information on the new institution, but has yet to receive a response.

This is just another tactic, part of the UAE’s decade-long whitewashing campaign to make themselves look like a tolerant, respectful and open country,” said Hiba Zayadin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, who focuses on abuses in the Gulf states.

But the situation on the ground is very different,” she told DW. “In fact, there is absolutely no room for dissent in the UAE. There have been no independent civil society groups there since 2012 and so many people have been jailed. There is a lot of fear of retaliation for speaking out and a high level of censorship, even amongst UAE-based international journalists and academics.” 

Other human rights organizations and media watchdogs have come to similar conclusions.

Reporters Without Borders has highlighted the lack of independent media and the UAE’s draconian cybercrime law from 2012. It ranks the country 131st in the world for press freedom out of 180.

UAE activist Ahmed Mansoor (was arrested in 2017 [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A]

Amnesty International maintains a long list of “prisoners of conscience” in the UAE, “including well-known human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor,” who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for posts on social media about human rights violations in the UAE.

In June, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders called on the UAE to release a number of people who had been imprisoned since 2013 for speaking out against the government.

“They should have never been detained in the first place for legitimately exercising the freedoms that all people are entitled to,” said Mary Lawlor.

Social media users in the Middle East were also critical about the announcement of the human rights organization. “The UAE and human rights don’t really go together,” one Twitter user wrote.

This is the joke of the season,” UK-based researcher Fahad al-Ghofaili, quipped on the same website.

The UAE has said the new body will be set up in line with the so-called Paris Principles.

Those standards, officially adopted by the United Nations in 1993, essentially outline how a national human rights institution’s leadership should be selected, how it will be funded and staffed and how it can cooperate with both civil society organizations and the government, but also remain independent.

Alexis Thiry, a legal adviser at Geneva-based legal advocacy organization MENA Rights Group, told DW it was too early to know if the new UAE organization would be sticking to the Paris Principles, as promised. This was because the rights group had not yet been able to read a publicly available version of the law, UAE Federal Law number 12 of 2021, that enabled the creation of the institution, said Thiry.

It is difficult to have an opinion about the forthcoming independence of the [institution] and its compliance with the Paris Principles,” he explained. “At this stage, it is also too early to comment on the performance of the institution since its members have yet to be appointed, to our knowledge.”

Despite its modern outward appearance, the UAE is regularly criticized about its human rights record

When a new institution like this is formed, it often applies for accreditation with the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions to see if it is adhering to the Paris Principles. The MENA Rights Group often provides assessments to the Global Alliance, which has 118 member organizations from around the world.

From the information the legal advisory group did have, it seemed that the UAE’s new law would be similar to those in neighbouring countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. All of these countries already have national human rights institutions. But according to the Geneva-based lawyers, none of the national human rights institutions in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar or Saudi Arabia fully comply with the Paris Principles.

However, if the UAE’s attempts at creating this institution are really genuine, then organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty would welcome that, activists said. In promotional materials, UAE media said the institution “would seek to cooperate and deal with the UN and concerned international bodies.”

It will be interesting to see if the UAE are now willing to engage with external organizations,” Human Rights Watch researcher Zayadin noted.

Despite multiple attempts asking UAE authorities to respond to allegations of abuse inside the country, and to get access to prisoners there, Zayadin said her organization has never received any response from the government.

A very first step towards a genuine commitment to improving human rights in the country would be to allow international, independent monitors access to the country,” said Zayadin. “An even more important step would be to release from prison all those who have been unjustly detained simply for exercising their right to free expression and association.”

https://www.dw.com/en/uaes-new-human-rights-institute-genuine-or-joke/a-59061415

In memory of Emirati human rights defender Alaa Al-Siddiq

June 23, 2021
Alaa Al-Siddiq, ALQST for Human Rights, https://www.alqst.org/en/post/ALQST-mourns-the-death-of-its-executive-director-alaa-al-siddiq

On 21 June 2021 the Gulf Centre for Human Rights pays tribute to prominent Emirati human rights defender Alaa Al-Siddiq who died in a tragic car accident in the UK, and joins the growing calls for an investigation into the circumstances of her death.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is deeply saddened by the loss of courageous Emirati human rights defender Alaa Al-Siddiq, Executive Director of ALQST for Human Rights and a Senior Researcher at Wejha Centre for Studies, who died tragically in a car accident in Oxfordshire, the United Kingdom on 19 June 2021.

We would like to pay tribute to her unique courage, her kind heart, her wonderful personality, and her tireless work to defend human rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. We will remember the anniversary of her loss as the Day of the Gulf Women Human Rights Defenders.

Alaa was a forceful and determined 33-year-old woman. She was outspoken and always defended her father, Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Razzaq Al-Siddiq, a prisoner of conscience who is a member of the “UAE 94”. In 2013, he was sentenced to ten years in prison in a show trial based on trumped-up charges, that violated international standards.

Documenting human rights violations in the UAE and other Gulf countries comes at a price. Despite all the challenges and threats she faced, Alaa never stopped fighting for freedom for her father and other wrongfully detained prisoners of conscience, hoping for a country that respects human rights including freedom of speech.

Alaa’s role as Executive Director of ALQST, a leading organisation in documenting human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, didn’t make things easier. Alaa was always receiving threats on her Twitter account: https://twitter.com/alaa_q, yet she dealt with the e-flies with patience, civility and respect.

Her relationship with GCHR was a very strong and fruitful one that produced a report, Torture in the United Arab Emirates: The Tolerance Charade“, published in March 2021 with the Wejha Centre for Studies. She also contributed to several successful online events using Zoom and Clubhouse, including a side event during the 45th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in October 2020.

In December 2020, Alaa was among the WHRDs in the MENA region that GCHR celebrated via a Twitter campaign during the #16DaysofActivism against gender-based violence (GBV). (See the main image above.)

It is a very big loss, and no one will be able to fill her empty place,” said Khalid Ibrahim, GCHR Executive Director, who added, “It is a very sad day for me as we have lost a wonderful woman, a true courageous, independent, hardworking and ever-patient advocate.

I cannot believe that we lost Alaa. She was very courageous! She carried on in the fight against oppression despite all the hardships. Alaa was a genuine voice in a country where everything is built on lies,” said Salma Mohammad, GCHR Project Coordinator.

According to the police and local authorities, the circumstances of the car crash were an accident, but they are still looking for witnesses to find out exactly what happened. GCHR calls on the UK police to publicise the information about the incident which took the life of Alaa Al-Siddiq and injured four others.

Mary Lawlor calls AGAIN on UAE to release prominent human rights defenders

June 15, 2021

On 11 June 2021 Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, called on the United Arab Emirates to immediately release five human rights campaigners detained since 2013.

Mohamed al-Mansoori [https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A], Hassan Mohammed Al-Hammad, Hadif Rashed Abdullah al-Owais, Ali Saeed Al-Kindi and Salim Hamdoon Al-Shahhi were among a group of 94 lawyers, rights advocates and academics accused of plotting to overthrow the Emirati government. 

In July 2013, 69 of the defendants in the “UAE-94” case were sentenced, eight of them in absentia, up to 15 years in prison.  The detentions came amid Abu Dhabi’s crackdown on an Islamist association called al-Islah and other activists calling for political reform in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. 

They should have never been detained in the first place for legitimately exercising the freedoms that all people are entitled to,” said Mary Lawlor.

Lawlor called the five activists’ sentences “excessively severe” and noted that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared their sentences arbitrary

She noted allegations that the rights defenders have been subjected to long periods in solitary confinement, which could amount to torture. Other allegations include prison guards shutting off the air conditioning amid scathing hot temperatures and covering windows to prevent the prisoners from getting sunlight. 

The prisoners have severely limited or no access to legal counsel, Lawlor said, potentially violating their right to a fair trial. 

I call on the Emirati authorities to release these human rights defenders from detention in order to continue their meaningful and necessary human rights work,” Lawlor said.

This follows an earlier plea of 22 February: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/22/lawlor-urges-uae-to-free-ahmed-mansoor-mohamed-al-roken-and-other-hrds/

https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/06/un-expert-calls-uae-release-prominent-human-rights-defenders#ixzz6xesKipiF

The intriguing case of Artur Ligęska who was in prison with Ahmed Mansoor in the UAE

June 9, 2021

Mirage news of 8 June 8, 2021 tells the sad story of Artur Ligęska, a 40-year-old Polish citizen who has spoken out widely about torture and ill-treatment in Emirati prisons. He was found dead in his apartment in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on May 26, 2021. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch are deeply saddened by the news of his death and extend their sincere condolences to his friends and family.

Following his release from al-Sadr prison in May 2019, Artur dedicated himself to seeking justice for the abuse he and other prisoners suffered in prison, especially Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights defender who is on the advisory boards of GCHR and Human Rights Watch. [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A]Artur was a uniquely valuable source of information on prison conditions in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

He was an activist, author, and fitness expert and had recently celebrated the second anniversary of his acquittal on May 9. He had been sentenced to life in prison in the UAE following a deeply flawed trial on drug charges despite the absence of any evidence of drugs in his possession.

In a voice message to a friend at GCHR on May 9, Artur said, “My main wish for this new-life birthday is freedom for Ahmed Mansoor. I really do hope that this year will be special for him. I was thinking all day about him. I remember our last talk, and I was thinking about his wife and kids. …In the last days, Ahmed told me ‘Don’t forget about me.’

Artur said he was planning to organize a protest in The Hague soon to call for Ahmed’s release. Artur’s many actions to help Ahmed included advocacy with Polish and EU officials, providing human rights groups with information, taking part in human rights events, documentary films and TV appearances, and writing about Ahmed in his two books.

Artur first phoned GCHR staff in April 2019 to tell them that Ahmed was on a hunger strike and told them that he was worried that Ahmed might die because his health had deteriorated greatly. He told GCHR that Ahmed was being held in “terrible conditions” in a cell with no bed, no water, and no access to a shower. Ahmed today remains in a 2-by-2 meter isolation cell with no bed or mattress, serving a 10-year prison sentence for his human rights activities.

Despite suffering serious trauma after suffering abuse as a prisoner in the UAE, Artur again phoned GCHR to share the good news that human rights groups’ advocacy had been successful. Ahmed had ended his hunger strike after being allowed to phone his ill mother and to go outside to see the sun for the first time in two years. Artur sacrificed phone calls to his own family to make calls on behalf of Ahmed, referring to him as a brother.

Following his release, Artur was able to provide GCHR with more details about what he called the “medieval prison conditions” in al-Sadr prison, including periods when there was no running water despite extreme heat.

In a wide-ranging interview released by Human Rights Watch in January 2020, Artur described how he and Ahmed had become “prison mates in UAE hell.” Artur spent eight months in al-Sadr prison, in solitary confinement in a cell beside Ahmed’s. His friend suffered psychological torture from a near-total lack of human contact and access to the library, Artur said. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/22/lawlor-urges-uae-to-free-ahmed-mansoor-mohamed-al-roken-and-other-hrds/

Artur told GCHR that after he left the UAE, he had undergone surgery and therapy to treat the damage done by the rape and psychological torture that he said he was subjected to but he was recovering well and taking classes to become a journalist and human rights professional.

On April 13, 17 European Parliament members wrote to the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell to express their “deepest concern over the ongoing human rights violations in the United Arab Emirates, particularly with regards to the systematic crackdown on freedom of speech and expression and the subsequent retaliation received during detention.” The letter mentions Ahmed, and also refers to Artur, noting, “The use of torture has not been limited to Emirati nationals, as there have also been instances of EU citizens that have reported facing brutal torture at the hands of prison authorities.”

On October 22, 2020, Amnesty Westminster Bayswater and GCHR held an online event, The Prisoner and the Pen, featuring the writing, songs and poetry of prisoners who are human rights defenders and the work of writers and artists from the Middle East and North Africa region. The event, held on Ahmed ‘s birthday, included his poems. Artur read from his memoir, “The Sheikh’s Different Love,” published in 2019 in Polish. He has also written a second bestselling book in Poland, “Prison Diary.” His story is documented in a film by Hossam Meneai, Isolation Cell 32, which debuted at the Polish Film Festival in America in November. Artur also appears in an upcoming documentary about Ahmed Mansoor made by Manu Luksch.

Artur’s untimely and unexpected death comes as a great shock to those who knew him. The Dutch police are investigating the circumstances of his death.

https://www.miragenews.com/tribute-to-artur-ligeska-former-prisoner-in-uae-573024/

Juergen Habermas’ rejection of the Sheikh Zayed Award

May 10, 2021

After at first agreeing to accept the grand prize as “Cultural Personality of the Year” in the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, Juergen Habermas then decided to decline the honour. An interesting commentary by Reinhard Schulze sheds light on the wisdom of accepting such awards:

The rejection of the prize awarded by the United Arab Emirates has sparked quite a controversy and even been linked to the debate on “cancel culture”.

Some argue that it is wrong to decline the award because this indicates a failure to recognise the Emirates’ reform efforts; because such a rejection pretends to a freedom from the double standards that characterise political cooperation; because even reforms introduced by absolutist rulers can have positive effects; because Arabs have just as much right to read the works of Juergen Habermas as those in the West; because prizes always connote self-praise by their sponsor; because other famous personalities have also accepted prizes from the Gulf States; and because dialogue is more important than the self-righteous “cancel culture” of the West. [see e.g.; https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/22/zayed-award-for-human-fraternity-to-latifa-ibn-ziaten-and-uns-antonio-guterres/]

Who is honouring whom?

The first argument concerns the political context behind the Zayed Award. Some say that the UAE’s foreign, cultural and anti-Islamism policies betray signs of cautious reforms and opening in the principalities. This raises the question: who is honouring whom here? Does the prize honour the laureate, or does the laureate honour the sponsor’s reform policies by accepting?

In reality, the current politics in the UAE are anything but reformist. The interventions in Libya and Yemen, for example, are far more than just military adventures. They instead underpin a foreign policy strategy aimed at establishing a new Arab security architecture against Iran and Turkey, in which the Emirates are setting the tone together with Saudi Arabia. [see e.g.: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/04/29/the-emirates-not-a-paradise-for-human-rights-defenders/]…

The award in the context of neo-nationalist cultural policy

However, the Emirates’ cultural policy is clearly heading in a different direction. It combines the aspiration to make the Emirates the embodiment of a global culture on the one hand with a sentimental and nostalgic Arabism on the other. The Emirates want to give shape and expression to this Arabism and yet at the same time take on the status of patron of global culture. It is therefore no coincidence that the Zayed Award always selects as its “cultural personality of the year” someone who represents this global culture, this time in the form of Juergen Habermas, who was henceforward to be protected and promoted by the Emirates. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/10/26/celebrity-endorsements-and-the-dubai-expo-on-the-one-hand-and-the-other/

The Emirates see as their greatest adversaries all organisations and groups that view Islam as a secular order, chief among them of course the Muslim Brotherhood. Such groups are ridiculed as relics of bygone times and at the same time furiously opposed. Promoted instead is an Islamic orthodoxy, provided it renounces any political pretensions. This Islamic orthodoxy is seen as part of the new nostalgic Arabism and reduced to the function of a symbolic cultural system of the Emirati “nation” represented by the princes.

There is no autonomous, discursively self-administering civic sphere, and journalistic freedom is to a large degree restricted. Emirati journalist Ahmad Mansoor, who won the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015, has been in prison again since 2017, serving a 10-year sentence for allegedly using social media platforms to threaten public order and publish false and misleading information. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/24/martin-ennals-award-laureates-rally-to-demand-freedom-for-their-imprisoned-fellow-award-winners/

Current policies in the Emirates thus largely rule out any opening up within society or social change. Only 10% of the population in the seven principalities are considered citizens, while 90% are foreigners or stateless persons (bidun). And only 7% are deemed to be Arab members of the titular nation.

The award and the weak legitimacy of the princes

Like most awards, the Zayed Award is also a mark of distinction for its sponsor. There is nothing inherently dishonourable about that. Things become problematic, however, when, as in Abu Dhabi, such self-adulation serves primarily to enhance the legitimacy of the ruling order through external recognition. Since only a very small minority of people in the country have any function at all as subjects that can legitimise the rule of the princes, a large portion of the population is politically and culturally functionless.

The legitimacy of the princes thus rests on very weak shoulders, which is why they strive to compensate for the lack of an internal basis of legitimacy through increased acknowledgement from the outside. And, as with the numerous principalities in the age of European absolutism, the princes on the Arabian Peninsula can also get ahead in the competition to secure legitimacy from the outside by obtaining prestigious objects. In Abu Dhabi, this includes the “Arab Louvre” and also the Zayed Award, which spotlights the “book” as the route to legitimacy.

Many have already been honoured with this award. In 2003, for example, the 8th President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, received this highest state award in the Emirates. Zayed Award winners in the “cultural personality” category include the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf (2016), Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui (2017), Arabists Yaroslav and Suzanne Stetkevych (2019), and Palestinian author Salma Khadra Al Jayyusi (2020).
Abu Dhabi is emerging from Saudi Arabia’s shadow: since the Arab Spring of 2011, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been pursuing an increasingly active foreign and security policy and have emerged as a leading regional power. The rise of the UAE to a regional power has made the country a more important and simultaneously a more problematic policy partner for Germany and Europe, argues Guido Steinberg in his study on “Regional Power United Arab Emirates”

Enlightened absolutism in the Gulf?

All of the award-winners to date have had a direct connection to the Arab world. With Juergen Habermas, however, a personality has been chosen for this year’s prize who has a pronounced legitimising function. To a certain extent, this has made the award more international, a move that corresponds quite closely to the efforts of the royal house of Abu Dhabi to gain the broadest possible worldwide recognition. Juergen Habermas’s oeuvre would seem to be ideally suited for this purpose. One might ask, though, why potentates would choose a personality whose work entails a radical critique of discourses of power, when their own actions as rulers run counter to precisely what the honouree has deemed necessary for the success of a society.

Do the princes want to show that they have now become advocates of an “enlightened absolutism”, endeavouring to reform the Leviathan of the state to such an extent that it becomes a beacon for Arab enlightenment? Are they trying to shift the weight of their project onto the shoulders of giants?

But an enlightened absolutism 2.0 would require broad legitimacy that goes far beyond a public sphere controlled by the royal court. This legitimacy, the princes realise, can only be obtained internationally. And if international recognition is tantamount to support for their foreign and security policy strategy, then that is certainly worth the prize money.

Refusing to condone such a strategy is by no means an expression of “cancel culture”. There are often good reasons for honourees to turn down awards. This was the case in 2008, for example, when literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki refused to accept the honorary prize of the German Television Award, and in 2011, when Juan Goytisolo from Spain refused to accept the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights. Jean-Paul Sartre seems to have had less cogent reasons for turning down the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. But in any case, the reasons that lead someone to decline an award should be appreciated and respected. It harms no one, unless you regard the awardee as a sovereign subject of the prize sponsor. So let’s wait and see if Juergen Habermas takes the opportunity to explain his motives.

The Islamic scholar Reinhard Schulze works at the University of Bern. Since 2018, he has been the director of FINO, the "Forum Islam and Middle East", at the University (photo: private)

The argument that culture cannot be kept free of the double standards of politics, which is willing to prioritise economic interests over the demand for human rights, may seem disturbing. In the final analysis, this means that awards such as the aforementioned Al-Gaddafi Prize for Human Rights would also have to be recognised. I believe that the awards culture in particular poses a major challenge, as it can quickly be exploited in an almost extortionate manner to gain legitimacy and recognition. This was evident in some of the reactions to Juergen Habermas’s refusal of the award. The Catholic Bishop for the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, Paul Hinder, described the rejection of the invitation to accept the prize as an “insult” to its sponsor. This makes one wonder whether, as an award winner, one automatically has some sort of obligation towards the donor?

It is precisely because international relations are so rife with double standards that it is necessary to create cultural and scientific realms in which the claim can be made to address human rights violations, freedom of the press and freedom of religion on an equal footing and based on an equal rationale. When someone like Juergen Habermas calls for this so urgently, relying on the power of words, then we can rightly expect that receiving an award will also be evaluated from this standpoint.

Not a case of arrogance

Therefore, it is not arrogance on the part of the West to reject this prize, if only because Juergen Habermas is not the West and the prize is not the Arab world. We should keep our feet firmly planted on the ground and not speak here of a new culture war. An honouree has exercised his right to ask who is honouring him and then decide whether to accept that honour.

His rejection of the award is in keeping with the work of Juergen Habermas. Social media reactions coming from Arab countries indicate that the majority welcomes Habermas’s decision; some have even expressed relief because the refusal to accept the award accomplishes two things at once: for one thing, the awards committee has recognised and manifested the prize-worthiness of Juergen Habermas’s work for the Arab world. Arabic editions of his works will surely become more widespread. Secondly, Habermas himself has shown that, despite the honour, he has stood by his critical principles and arrived at a decision that is consistent for him, and he has done so in a political environment where every honour is subject to the suspicion of being corrupt.

© Journal21/Reinhard Schulze/Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

https://en.qantara.de/content/a-triumph-for-discourse-juergen-habermas-rejection-of-the-sheikh-zayed-book-award

https://en.qantara.de/content/sheikh-zayed-book-award-why-has-juergen-habermas-rejected-a-prize-from-the-uae