Ahmed sitting and looking to camera, he is wearing a plain white keffiyah with two black ropes holding it on his head, and a long white shirt
Ahmed was arrested on charges of using social media to threaten public order (Picture: Ahmed Mansoor)

On the face of it, life in Dubai looks good – there are pristine beaches, malls and impressive modern buildings. But if you dare speak out on a political or judicial reform, you will almost certainly end up in prison.

Because behind the glitz, welcoming smiles and promises of forward-thinking policies churned out by the regime’s well-oiled PR machine, a host of human rights abuses are being perpetrated.

Let me be clear: The United Arab Emirates Government will stop at very little to silence dissent.

Perhaps few know this better right now than Ahmed Mansoor, a 54-year-old activist and friend who is currently languishing in solitary confinement without a bed – and has done so since 2017 – all because he dared criticise his country’s government and called for political reform.

Ahmed was arrested on charges of using social media to threaten public order and publish false and misleading information. The following year, the father-of-four was found guilty and convicted for ‘insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leader’ and given a prison sentence of 10 years, according to Amnesty International.

A headshot of Ahmed Mansoor, wearing a plain white keffiyah with two black ropes holding it on his head and a long white shirt
The father-of-four was found guilty and convicted (Picture: Ahmed Mansoor)

His mistreatment is cruel, degrading, and – because of his extremely prolonged isolation from human contact – could be considered psychological torture.

In 2021, The European Parliament urged the UAE to immediately and unconditionally release Ahmed and other human rights activists, saying that the Emirati authorities had ‘violated Ahmed Mansoor’s rights for more than 10 years with arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, physical assault, government surveillance and inhumane treatment in custody’.

Still, nothing has changed and Ahmed continues to deteriorate inside a tiny, dirty cell in the middle of the desert.

Although Ahmed Mansoor began his work defending human rights in the UAE in 2006, I only heard about him in 2011 when he was arrested for the first time, along with four other Emiratis, for organising a petition calling for democratic reforms.

The court’s ruling sentencing him to three years in prison on charges of ‘publicly insulting’ the Emirati authorities sparked anger on social media, and Ahmed became a prominent figure.

Hamad al-Shamsi is holding an orange placard that reads: There is no climate justice without human rights.
Myself and fellow activists campaigned for his release (Picture: Hamad al-Shamsi)

I, along with others, wrote on Twitter demanding his release. Among those who wrote about him was Khalifa Al-Nuaimi, who was also later arrested because of his involvement in defending human rights.

Due to the significant public outrage over the sentence imposed on Ahmed and following an international protest led by human rights organisations, the President of the Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, reduced the sentences for Mansoor and the other four men. However, the authorities never returned his passport, effectively imposing a travel ban on him.

Many were in awe of his courage, as no one had dared to criticise the government openly; he rejected the suppression of freedom of expression, organised campaigns against repressive laws, and demanded democratic reforms.

Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, he spoke out in person and on social media, refusing to be intimidated by arrests, threats, and surveillance.

In the UAE, any punishment extends beyond the individual too: even extended family – including brothers, sisters and in-laws of those who stand up to power – become imprisoned within the country, unable to travel beyond the country’s borders. Quite simply, it is collective punishment and a means to muzzle dissent.

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Following his 2017 arrest, myself and fellow activists campaigned for his release. At the beginning, the internet was the only safe way to get his story heard as I, for example, had fled my country to escape being put in prison myself. I am part of a group known as the UAE94.

Before arbitrarily detaining Ahmed, the UAE had rounded up scores of people in a grossly unfair mass trial of 94 defendants that concluded in 2013. Sixty of them remain in prison today and some are being held incommunicado.

Despite avoiding prison, I still feel at risk. I’m nervous to travel and continue to avoid visiting certain countries for fear of what the consequences might be.

I desperately want to see Ahmed walk free in good health. He should be leading a human rights organisation, not fading away behind bars.

But the only way this can ever happen is if the UAE government receives pressure from outside – and this is where you come in. Speaking truth to power is a fundamental human right and no one should be jailed for peacefully expressing their opinion on how their country is run.

Hamad al-Shamsi wearing a grey blazer and black shirt, with a microphone on him, is looking away from camera - standing in side of a well designed building
I am part of a group known as the UAE94 (Picture: Hamad al-Shamsi)

Each year, Amnesty International holds the world’s biggest letter writing campaign where they invite people to contact those in power and demand justice for those being wronged and having their human rights held from them.

A truly global event, over 5.3million actions calling on those in power and in solidarity with individuals, were taken for the 10 individuals and groups who featured in Write for Rights 2022.

This year, Amnesty is asking you to write to the UAE embassy in London. This action is directed to the President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, calling on him to immediately and unconditionally release Ahmed Mansoor. His sentence must be quashed and his travel ban must also be lifted.

Because if the UAE really cares about how it’s perceived on the international stage, it needs to be seen to be putting real effort into promoting and upholding progressive human rights – so far it’s very much been style over substance.

Hamad al-Shamsi is an Emirati human rights defender and Executive Director of the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre, a non-profit organisation that shines a light on prisoners of conscience detained in Emirati prisons and advocates on their behalf. You can find out more about Ahmed’s case on the Amnesty International UK website here.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk

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