For the past four months, hundreds of thousands of voices demanding variations on a theme—democracy, human rights, an end to torture, a stop to corruption—have echoed from Morocco to Yemen, each with its own local variation. In the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven small semi-autonomous sheikdoms, that voice sounded a little hoarse. More like a whisper, you might say. And then it went silent.
Since April 8 the Emirati government has arrested five prominent Emiratis—activists, bloggers and an academic—for signing a petition calling for reform, and thrown them in jail, where they remain to this day. They are being held without charges, although they are in contact with their families and lawyers.
The five detainees are among over 160 professionals who on March 9 submitted what has to be one of the gentlest pleas for political reform in recent history, which included a request to make the Federal National Council, the UAE’s powerless legislative body, at least open to universal contestation. On February 24 President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced he was doubling the pool of eligible voters, to around 12,000. That is still less than 2 percent of the Emirati population.
(For the record, here’s what Emirati rabble-rousing sounds like: “Please We, the undersigned, a group of people of the United Arab Emirates, rise up to serve your Generous Highness and Their Highnesses Members of Supreme Council of the Federation of deep appreciation and respect…” the petition begins. “Out of our deep concern for this nation, and its people, who are your sons…” it continues. A fiery battle cry it is not.)
But even this was too much. On April 8, at 3 am, several police asked Ahmed Mansoor, one of the signatories, a blogger and a member of the Human Rights Watch advisory committee, to come down to “answer some questions about his car.” (Incidentally, this was the same approach that security officials used to take Naji Hamdan, a United States citizen who allegedly was tortured in custody.) Fearing a trap, he refused to come down, but was taken away by a second group of security officers that same afternoon.
Two days later Nasser bin Ghaith, a prominent Emirati economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, was also carted away. His ostensible crime was urging the UAE, on television shows and in panel discussions, to become more transparent, as a means to further economic development. In subsequent days, three other online activists, Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, were arrested. In the weeks that followed, the government dissolved the boards of two of the country’s oldest civil society organizations, the Jurists’ Association and the Teachers’ Association, for signing a similar petition.
According to Samer Muscati, UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch, these crackdowns are merely the latest in an ongoing campaign of repression against activists in the UAE. “Since the Arab Spring we’ve seen unprecedented actions,” said Muscati, although he noted that UAE activists have been calling for political reform well before uprisings began in North Africa. “You have these petitions signed by a wide range of people. The government realizes this is getting out of control, that they can’t have people just challenging them, and they have to make an example out of these five.”