Torture in the UAE 'widespread and often unpunished', survivors and experts tell UN

Torture in the UAE 'widespread and often unpunished', survivors and experts tell UN
6 min read
12 July, 2022
Survivors recounted mental and physical abuse at the hands of Emirati security forces before the UN's Committee Against Torture considers the UAE's implementation of an anti-torture convention at a session this week
Dr. Matthew Hedges (left) and Ali Issa Ahmad have both survived torture at the hands of the Emirati security forces [Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP via Getty-archive]

Survivors of torture at the hands of UAE security forces gave gut-wrenching and chilling personal accounts at a press conference in Geneva on Monday, ahead of the latest session for the UN Committee Against Torture.

The press conference, held online and at the Geneva Press Club, followed a report jointly authored by MENA Rights Group and the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center (EDAC), published late last month and submitted to the UN committee, which found that "torture is widespread in the country and often goes unpunished".

At its session in Geneva taking place from 12-29 July, the UN Committee Against Torture, a body of ten independent experts monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), will consider four countries – Botswana, Nicaragua, Palestine and the UAE.

Consideration of the UAE is to take place this Wednesday and Thursday.

Several other human rights organisations, including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, submitted reports to the UN committee for consideration before the upcoming session that accuse the UAE security forces of committing widespread torture and allowing it to go unchecked.

According to the report, among the biggest culprits is the state security apparatus (SSA), which arrests and holds people incommunicado for up to several months at a time in secret facilities – conduct that "constitutes an act of torture".

"While in incommunicado detention, detainees are also further subjected to different forms of torture or ill-treatment, frequently with the aim of extracting coerced confessions," the NGOs said.

Though the UAE ratified UNCAT in 2012, Emirati law does not criminalise torture in a manner entirely consistent with the Convention, the report found.

Penalties to punish the use of torture are not harsh enough, the report said, and Emirati law does not explicitly say that torture is not acceptable in any circumstance whatsoever, as required by UNCAT.

Outside of the country, UAE forces and their allies operate a network of detention facilities in Yemen where gross human rights violations have been committed, the human rights groups said.

Monday's press conference featured a mix of both in-person and virtual speakers, among them two Britons detained by the security forces.

Ali Issa Ahmad, a British and Sudanese national, was arrested while visiting the UAE to watch football matches during the Asian Cup tournament in January 2019.

While wearing a Qatar football shirt, he was physically assaulted by security forces.

"One of the guys took a pocket knife, he started cutting at the flag [on the shirt], into my chest and into my body. He was shouting and screaming, saying 'this flag, you can't raise it here'," he said.

While in detention, he wasn't allowed to eat, drink, sleep, or contact family.

"I was on holiday, I went to Dubai to have a nice time. Unfortunately, it was a very tough time and I was very lucky to have survived, to tell you my story."

Dr. Matthew Hedges was conducting PhD research in the UAE when detained in 2018. Accused of spying, he was held in prolonged solitary confinement for nearly seven months.

Hedges said security officers threatened to transfer him to an overseas military base in Yemen, and that he was forced to take stimulants and depressants for interrogations that lasted as long as 17 hours at a time.

Both Ahmed and Hedges will speak to the UN committee during this week's session.

"It's important for us to be here, to be giving evidence to the UN... to help illustrate the systemic nature of these systems of abuses within the UAE. This is not just something that is a random occurrence and is a mistake. No, this is something that is part of the DNA of that structure designed to keep power concentrated," Hedges said.

"Hopefully, this can be taken by the committee against torture to acknowledge... that these abuses are state-mandated. They are not just legitimised, they are enforced by the state.

"Hopefully, a sanction of some degree will come in the appropriate manner."

Jenan al-Marzooqi, an Emirati human rights defender, recounted the plight of her father, prisoner of conscience Abd al-Salam Darwish, who has been subjected to torture during his ongoing detention and a flawed trial.

"The judge never investigated my father and other detainees' testimonies regarding their enforced disappearance, the torture they endured, and all other violations of human rights they've experienced," she said in video testimony.

It is unknown how many people have been subjected to torture in the UAE, with people afraid to speak out about what they suffered as they fear reprisals, the panellists said.

"It's really hard to tell because there are only so many cases that become public... unfortunately we can only talk about the cases we document, that's probably only a small percentage of the total number," Julia Zomignani Barboza, legal consultant for MENA Rights Group said.

The international community appears to have turned a blind eye to the UAE's use of torture. The country won membership on the UN Human Rights Council for the third time late last year, and shares strong relations with its western allies.

General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi – who, as the Gulf state's inspector general, has been responsible for investigating complaints against Emirati police and security forces – was elected president of Interpol in November last year, despite outcry from victims of torture in the UAE. 

While western countries have vowed to ostracise Saudi Arabia – though some have backtracked on this – the UAE has escaped such scrutiny, torture survivor Hedges said.

"The UAE has still been able to quite expertly demonstrate and show that it is on the same side as many countries in different areas. It legitimises its operations in Yemen and other states through counter-terrorism operations. It funds sports teams, and it shows it's part of a greater wider community," he said.

"If its engagements in negative activity continues to be part of predominant headlines, this is something which they don't like, and they end up having to slowly retract their position," he said.

"It's involvement with the abuses that were proven in court by the ruler of Dubai, by the hacking that the UAE has directed, this has really set them back internationally and their reputation."

Speakers said torture would continue to be rampant in the UAE until the international community applied pressure on the country's rulers.