United Arab Emirates: Lift Travel Ban on Political Dissidents

Skyline of Dubai
Skyline of Dubai

It's hard to describe how scared people in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are of the secret police. The State Security apparatus, as it's spookily known, is the UAE's Stasi. Human rights activists and others I met secretly in the UAE a few months ago told me that many of the country's leading lawyers, academics and other leading civil society figures had been jailed or intimidated or forced into exile in the last couple of years by the feared agency. Its power has grown over the last ten years and now it effectively controls the government, penetrating every ministry. Part of its power is its ability to grant or withhold the security clearances needed for employment. At its head is Washington favorite Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who President Obama welcomed to White House and Camp David in May this year. Previously tolerated local civil society organizations in the UAE have been disbanded in the last few years, including the Association of Teachers and the Association of Jurists. Former heads of the Jurists Association are now political prisoners, including renowned constitutional scholar Dr. Mohammed al Roken. He's one of dozens serving long prison sentences after being convicted in a mass unfair trial in 2013. Reports of torture in custody have intensified in recent years, and only a tiny handful of dissidents in the country remain out of jail. These include prominent Human Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor, named in April this year as a 2015 finalist for the internationally prestigious Martin Ennals Human Rights Defender Award. Mansoor is one of three finalists, and has faced repeated harassment and death threats from the UAE authorities and their supporters for many years. He was jailed in April 2011 following an unfair trial with four other activists who called for democratic reform. The winner of the Martin Ennals Human Rights Defender Award for 2015 will be announced and the award presented in early October at a ceremony in Geneva. Thanks to the UAE's State Security apparatus, Mansoor won't be able to attend. His passport was confiscated when he was arrested and hasn't been returned. He's effectively banned from travel because of his human rights work. He is an alumni of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he graduated with an MSc in engineering in 1999. He remains a defiant symbol of dissent, where few like him remain. "Sometimes it's like moving a mountain stone by stone," he says of his struggle for human rights in the UAE. "Many people privately say they agree with me--I say 'Come and join us, courage is contagious.'

But it takes a rare courage to stand up to the UAE authorities. Activists in Dubai and Abu Dhabi told me told me there is a zero tolerance policy for peaceful criticism of the Emirati regime. There is also little appetite from the U.S. government to publicly criticize the appalling human rights record of its military ally the UAE, despite people routinely being seized and held for long periods without charge - including U.S. citizens Kamal and Mohammed al Darat. The two Americans, a father and son, have been held for over a year now without charge in the UAE's notorious prison system.

The United States is publicly muted about these abuses, and has yet to publicly call for Mansoor's travel ban to be lifted so he can go to Geneva in a few weeks. The prominent international human rights groups that make up the Martin Ennals Award jury have called for him to be allowed to leave UAE for the awards. The U.S. State Department should publicly join these calls for Ahmed Mansoor to be given back his passport and to be allowed to freely leave and return to his country. They should tell their UAE allies that an empty chair at the ceremony in Geneva with Mansoor's name on it won't look good for their international reputation.