Political and human rights advocates call for the release of Ahmed Mansoor, who has spent 100 days in UAE detention.
London, UK – Survivors of torture in the UAE have called on the international community to help to put an end to abuse in Emirati prisons.
Activist groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and local NGOs say hundreds of people have fallen foul of authorities in the country and were subject to forced disappearances, beatings, electric shocks, and other forms of torture.
Those affected include Emirati citizens, as well as expatriate residents, who are often held for months without formal charge.
Speaking at an event in the British parliament on Monday organised by the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR), businessman David Haigh said he continues to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress after two years in a UAE jail.
Haigh, who is the former managing director of Leeds United Football Club, had lived in Dubai for eight years when he was accused of fraud by the authorities, a charge he strenuously rejects.
For me one of the hardest things is watching others often younger than you being kicked and beaten and tortured and tasered
“I was tortured and abused and witnessed countless others tortured and abused, which is something that never leaves you,” Haigh said, adding he was denied access to medicine, translators, and lawyers.
“For me one of the hardest things is watching others often younger than you being kicked and beaten and tortured and tasered.
“You can’t help them and to hear their screams … that’s something that hasn’t left me.”
The trained lawyer said he saw injustice “every moment and every day” and was approached by police and judicial officials who told him they were receptive to receiving bribes that would help to release him from prison.
Haigh believes the charges against him were concocted by “unscrupulous parties who knew there was a weak legal system where justice could be bought and paid for.”
After 15 months of imprisonment, he was released and pardoned, only to be jailed again after the bank he was accused of defrauding alleged he had abused it on Twitter, which Haigh says was impossible, as he was in prison at the time.
He eventually returned to the UK after his release in summer 2016.
According to Amnesty International, torture and other abuses in the UAE “remained common and were committed with impunity”.
Methods of abuse included “beatings, electric shocks and sleep deprivation”, the organisation said.
Maria Di Lenna, of the International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE), told Al Jazeera that political prisoners were particularly singled out for abuse, as were those who get on the wrong side of the ruling families and their allies.
“Prisoners of conscience and political prisoners are specifically targeted in the UAE prison system,” she said, adding: “[Prisoners] face enforced disappearances, arbitrary and lengthy pre-trial detention, torture and other ill-treatment, as well as denial of their rights to legal representation and family visits.”
Di Lenna gave the recent example of an incident at al-Razeen prison in which guards raided a ward holding political prisoners and forced them to undergo strip searches, which the detainees described as “sexual harassment”.
Dissidents in the UAE are not only subject to potential abuses once arrested, but also a vast and intrusive surveillance system procured from states including the UK, Denmark, and Israel, among others.
According to ICFUAE, that has led to more intensified crackdowns on critics of the UAE’s rulers.
“In recent years, the UAE authorities have intensified their suppression of public criticism and dissent by using surveillance technologies and vague cybercrime laws to arrest activists, journalists, and anybody speaking out against these abuses,” Di Lenna said.
One recent target was prominent human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who was arrested at his family home in Abu Dhabi in March 2017 by plainclothed policemen, and later charged with “promoting false information” and “spreading hatred and sectarianism”.
Mansoor, who is being held in solitary confinement without access to lawyers, is known for his campaigning against arbitrary detentions, torture, and judicial wrongdoing, and in 2015 won the Martin Ennals Award for his work defending human rights.
He has not been heard from since his family last visited him in April 2015.
According to Di Lenna, the risk of arrest and torture extended not only to political activists but anyone critical of the UAE authorities.
“In 2016 alone, around 300 people were detained for merely voicing opinions on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter,” she said.
Syrian native Ayham al-Endari’s problems began with a dispute involving unresolved debt.
Endari said he arrived in the UAE from Syria in 2008, with his savings of just over $100,000 and went about setting up his business.
“I worked really hard for seven years and couldn’t even find the time to sleep,” he said. “I was constantly tired.”
The Syrian alleges that his troubles started when he lent money to a man with connections to Emirati royals.
When he tried to collect the debt, the man refused and after a court case that lasted more than a year, a judge ruled that Endari be jailed for a month and deported.
“The process of torture and humiliation started,” he said.
“I stayed in a dark, disgusting and small cell for seven days.
“They left me in jail for 68 days, which was much more than the initial judgment.”
But Endari’s troubles were only just starting.
After the Syrian revolution started in 2011, he had used Facebook to champion the opposition cause and had attracted the attention of the Syrian authorities.
At the start of his imprisonment he had received assurances from Emirati officials that he would not be deported to Syria but instead another country.
However, during his detention, he found out he would be deported to Syria anyway and needed his family in the country to intervene to avoid being detained.
“My brother had to pay a lot of money in order for me to arrive in Syria without being arrested,” he said.
Endari later joined the exodus of Syrians leaving the country and seeking refuge elsewhere.
Both Haigh and Endari have issued formal complaints to the UN regarding the UAE’s conduct and are in process of undertaking further legal action over the abuses they experienced.
Endari’s lawyer, Sue Willman, said there were several effective avenues for recourse, including placing pressure on the UN to act, as well as formal criminal procedures for targeting those responsible for torture within the UK.
“Ayham has filed his complaint to the UN bodies,” Willman said.
“It may seem like a waste of time because the UN is weak but if the UN keeps receiving complaints it can pressure the rapporteur to push the UAE,” she added.
The second approach was using the UK’s status as a signatory of the 1986 UN Convention against Torture.
The convention allows UK authorities to prosecute those responsible for torture when the alleged perpetrator enters their territory regardless of whether the crime took place within it.
I lost my company, my cars, and my bank accounts ... they destroyed my dreams, and even now I suffer from the nightmares and bad memories.
Willman explained that as the UK was frequently visited by UAE officials, those responsible for wrongdoing could be subject to arrest.
For both Haigh and Endari, the battle for justice is one they fight alongside their struggle to recover from their experiences.
Haigh spoke at the event despite recommendations from his doctors not to, while Endari struggles with the transition from successful businessman to refugee.
“They destroyed everything. They destroyed my life and my future,” he said.
“I lost my company, my cars, and my bank accounts … they destroyed my dreams, and even now I suffer from the nightmares and bad memories.
“I’m still here but I’ve lost hope. I feel I have no future.”
The embassy of the UAE in the UK has not replied to a request for comment.
At least 135 prisoners are Emirati citizens, and at least one, Sultan bin Kayed al-Qasimi, is a member of one of the country’s ruling families.