The Disappearing Act in the United Arab Emirates
UAE law on cybercrime is providing a legal basis for disappearances and crackdowns on cyber-dissent, says Joe Odell, of the International Campaign for Freedom
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In the United Arab Emirates, people are disappearing at an alarming rate. Not through some science fiction means, but through someone acting with state consent and authority, where individuals are grabbed from the street or from their homes, and then officials deny or refuse to say where they are. It is a crime under international law. This is all happening in conjunction with the disturbing increase in prosecutions of individuals under the Cybercrime Act for their social media posts. A report released by the Emirates Media and Studies Center has concluded that there has been at least 300 prosecutions for so-called ‘cybercrimes’ in the UAE. This is just in 2016 alone.
Joining us today from London to discuss the increasingly oppressive environment in the real world for online activity is Joe Odell. Joe is press officer for the International Campaign For Freedom in the UAE. Thanks for joining us Joe.
JOE ODELL: Thank you, I’m happy to be here.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joe, let’s start off by you describing for us the cyber law that is being used to prosecute people in the UAE for their basically what we would consider here free speech.
JOE ODELL: Well, it was a law that was instituted in 2012 by the UAE authorities. They instituted it … They claim that it’s been instituted to respect privacy, to fight for … To guard against personal hacking attacks and so forth. But when you look at the decree, its vaguely worded provisions really provide, essentially, a kind of legal basis, if you will, for heavy restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and essentially, really the repression of political distance and government critics, which we’ve seen at an alarming rate since the institution of this law in 2012.
SHARMINI PERIES: And as I understand it Joe, people are being targeted for social media posts that they may have actually done outside of the UAE. Is that correct?
JOE ODELL: Yes, and there have been cases of that. Earlier in 2014, a Jordanian journalist, Tayseer Al Najjar, tweeted or published a series of Facebook posts criticizing the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, and criticizing various Arab leaders, including the United Arab Emirates regime, for not doing enough to support the Palestinians. That post was made when he was in Jordan in 2014. In 2015 he moved to the UAE to start working as a reporter. He was then detained by authorities. He was disappeared for over a year, and he was eventually charged for those Facebook posts, and sentenced in March of this year to three years in prison.
SHARMINI PERIES: And how does a law allow them to do that, something that was actually done outside of the UAE?
JOE ODELL: And this comes back to the vagueness of the law in itself. It’s not clear. It doesn’t stipulate, really, that these posts, that you have to be in the UAE when you make these posts. It can be done outside … There’s another example of it with an American, a U.S. citizen, who was working for an Emirati company. Ryan Pate in 2015 posted on Facebook his grievances with the company. He then came back to the UAE to carry on working for them, and he was detained for a post that he made in Florida. So as I say, it’s very vague, it’s not clear, and obviously this leads to extrajudicial proceedings going on in relation to it.
SHARMINI PERIES: What are some of the issues that people may be talking about in social media that seems to be offending the state the most?
JOE ODELL: I think, obviously issues around … This is primarily aimed at, and this is part of really a wider crackdown in the UAE. I mean, it shouldn’t be understood in isolation. Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, state repression in the UAE has got increasingly more coercive. This happened with a group of activists who launched a petition calling for Democratic reforms. The result of that was that 64 were then incarcerated. And this law came in after that. It’s primarily, really, designed to silence criticism of the state, essentially, and silence the work of human rights activists. Currently, the very, very prominent human rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor, who in 2015 won the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, which is essentially the UN Nobel Peace Prize for human rights activists. He was detained, or forcefully disappeared earlier this year in relation to his social media posts. And it’s ironic, because what he was campaigning about in the UAE were restrictions around social media, and now he has been forcefully disappeared as a result of his social media activity.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. So obviously, Joe, you’re working on this case. What are some of the other cases that you’re working on regarding forced disappearances, and the use of cyber crime laws in the UAE?
JOE ODELL: Well, so there are other cases … I mean, there were so many cases in which this has happened. Earlier this year, the prominent Emirati academic Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith was sentenced to 10 years in prison for Twitter comments that were critical of the UAE authorities. He was forcefully disappeared for a random period of eight months, a period of which he maintained he was tortured. Subsequently, Amnesty International Human Rights Watch have launched international campaigns calling for his immediate and unconditional release. He’s launched a hunger strike.
So there are so many examples of this, but it’s important to understand it within a wider context of repression in the UAE, and it’s important, I think, to understand it within the wider Middle East in terms of … And the links that that has in terms of arms exports to the Middle East. So we had the Arab uprisings in 2011. A lot of people dubbed that The Facebook Revolution. Social media was absolutely fundamental to the way people organized, and people came out into the streets subsequently to call for pro-democracy movements. So regimes have very, very quickly caught on, including the UAE, have quickly caught on to the fact that they need to control social media.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And what can you tell us about the role of foreign governments and corporations in collaborating with the repression in the UAE?
JOE ODELL: Okay, so a BBC report came out about a couple of months ago, and it uncovered that BAE Systems, so a British weapons manufacturer, were actually exporting weapons, exporting cybersecurity and military technologies to the United Arab Emirates. And this technology, essentially, facilitates the UAE authorities, and surveying and monitoring the population. It encrypts phone communications, it’s got voice-tracking software.
So British companies such as the UAE, Israel, are also involved in exporting, tracking and monitoring surveillance software to the UAE. There was a breaking story last year that Ahmed Mansoor, the human rights defender who I mentioned earlier, there was an attempted hacking on his phone, which basically was a text message. And this text message promised to give him information about the conditions of prisoners in the United Arab Emirates. And as he had already been subject to cyber attacks in the past, he was very suspicious. So he passed his phone onto an organization called Citizen Lab in Toronto, who then managed to track … Or found there had been an attempted attack on his phone, and managed to track it to an Israeli company called the NOS Group, and reportedly the UAE had paid a million pounds from this Israeli company for the software. So there is a real market in terms of cybersecurity dealers, if you will, that is facilitating this repression.
SHARMINI PERIES: Yes. We actually did a story about the lab you’re talking about in Canada, where they did a report on the way in which this technology had been used in Mexico to monitor the activities of lawyers, activists, working on the disappearances of the students in Mexico. So this is all very interesting. It all comes full circle here of how it is being used by states. What can people do if they want to support people who are being targeted, or what can people who think they are being targeted do if they suspect that their phone or their messages are being tampered with?
JOE ODELL: Well, yes, because of the nature of obviously the surveillance state in the United Arab Emirates, it’s very, very difficult if you’re in the UAE to counter these attacks by the government. I mean, what Ahmed Mansoor did was absolutely paramount in uncovering and exposing the nature of these attacks, and actually led Apple to do a software update to get rid of the faults in the phone that enabled the attack. What they can do is follow Ahmed’s lead and stay in communication with groups like Citizen’s Lab. In the UK and in the US, what people can do is pressure their government, really, to stop selling this kind of software, and stop allowing British and American companies to export their software to regimes around the world that routinely violate international human rights law. And so it’s absolutely important to realize … Certainly, the British state is absolutely complicit in human rights violations. It’s allowing the export of this cybersecurity software in the UAE. So it’s up to people in the West to put pressure on their governments in order to stop these exports.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joe, it’s a very interesting situation, because countries like Canada, the UK, the U.S., of course call out nations like the UAE for the violations of human rights in their country, but at the same time, they provide them the technologies, the weaponry, and even training and assistance to carry out these human rights violations. An interesting predicament.
JOE ODELL: It is, it certainly is, yes.
SHARMINI PERIES: I thank you so much for joining us today.
JOE ODELL: Thank you very much, glad to be here.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.