Amnesty International Report 2015/16 - The State of the World's Human Rights - United Arab Emirates

The authorities arbitrarily restricted freedom of expression, arresting and prosecuting government critics. A new law on combating discrimination and hatred imposed further limits on the rights to freedom of expression and association. Security forces subjected dozens of people to enforced disappearance. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees was common. Prisoners of conscience remained imprisoned following unfair trials. Women faced discrimination in law and in practice. Migrant workers were inadequately protected by law and faced exploitation and abuse. The death penalty remained in force and there was one execution.


In March, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) joined the Saudi Arabia-led international coalition that engaged in the armed conflict in Yemen (see Yemen entry).

In May, the authorities denied entry to an Amnesty International representative who had been invited to speak at a construction industry conference in Dubai.

Freedom of expression

The authorities used provisions of the Penal Code, the 2012 cybercrime law and the 2014 anti-terrorism law to arrest, prosecute and imprison critics. In July, the enactment of a new law on combating discrimination and hatred further eroded rights to freedom of expression and association. The new law defines hate speech as “any speech or conduct which may incite sedition, prejudicial action or discrimination among individuals or groups”, punishable by a minimum of five years’ imprisonment. It also empowers the courts to order the disbandment of associations deemed to provoke such speech and imprison their founders for a minimum of 10 years.

In February, state security officials arrested three sisters, Dr Alyaziyah, Asma and Mariam Khalifa al-Suwaidi, after they posted comments on Twitter relating to their brother, a prisoner of conscience. The women were subjected to enforced disappearance for three months; they were released in May.

In May, the Dubai Criminal Court sentenced an Indian national to one year in prison, followed by deportation, after it convicted him of blasphemy in relation to a Facebook post deemed to “insult” Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Also in May, the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court, which hears cases related to national security, sentenced Ahmed Abdulla al-Wahdi to 10 years’ imprisonment after convicting him of “creating and running a social media account that insults the UAE’s leadership and the country’s institutions”, based on comments he had posted on Twitter.

The same court handed down a three-year prison sentence in June to Nasser al-Junaibi after convicting him on charges of “insulting the royal family” and “spreading rumours and information that harmed the country”, partly on the basis of his Twitter comments criticizing as a “judicial farce” the 2013 mass trial of government critics and pro-reform advocates known as the UAE 94 trial. Many of the UAE 94 remained in prison and were prisoners of conscience, including human rights lawyer Dr Mohammed al-Roken.

Enforced disappearances

State security forces arrested dozens of people, including foreign nationals and peaceful government critics, and subjected them to enforced disappearance. They were detained incommunicado in secret locations, in some cases for more than a year.

In August, Dr Nasser bin Ghaith, an academic, economist and former prisoner of conscience, was subjected to enforced disappearance by state security officers after he criticized “Arab dictators” on Twitter. His whereabouts remained undisclosed at the end of the year.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Some of those who were formerly subjected to enforced disappearance said security officials had tortured and otherwise ill-treated them in detention. The authorities denied they had used torture, and failed to independently investigate, ignoring the recommendation in May of the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers that the government should appoint an independent committee of experts to investigate allegations of torture.

Unfair trials

The authorities used vague and overly broad provisions of the Penal Code, cybercrime law and anti-terrorism law to prosecute dozens of people before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court, whose verdicts are not subject to appeal, in breach of international fair trial standards. One defendant sentenced to death by the Court was executed two weeks later (see below).

In August, a mass trial of 41 people was held before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court. Charges included “plotting to overthrow the government and replace it with an ISIL-like ‘caliphate’”. The defendants included at least 21 people whom the state security forces had subjected to 20 months of enforced disappearance since their arrests in November and December 2013.

Women’s rights

Women continued to face discrimination in law and in practice. In July, a court sentenced an 18-year-old woman to nine months’ imprisonment for engaging in illicit relationships with men. She was 16 years old when arrested and had been released on bail.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

In February, two transgender women, both foreign nationals, were charged with being disguised as women and entering a place restricted only to women. They were jailed until they each paid a fine and were then deported.

Migrant workers’ rights

Migrant workers continued to face exploitation and abuse despite protective provisions contained in the 1980 Labour Law and subsequent decrees. The kafala sponsorship system made workers vulnerable to abuse by their employers.

In April, an investigative report commissioned by a UAE government agency found that thousands of migrant construction workers employed at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi had been forced to pay steep recruitment fees and had their passports confiscated, despite university guidelines designed to ensure fair working and living conditions. Domestic workers, overwhelmingly women, remained excluded from the protections afforded to other migrant workers and faced physical violence, confinement to places of work, and other abuses. Workers who engaged in strikes or other forms of collective action faced arrest and deportation.

The authorities’ intolerance of criticism of their record on migrant workers was underlined when, in March, they denied entry to Professor Andrew Ross, an expert on labour issues at New York University.

Death penalty

The death penalty remained in force for murder and other offences, and courts continued to hand down death sentences. On 29 June, the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court sentenced Alaa al-Hashemi to death on terrorism charges. The authorities executed her on 13 July. She had been denied the right of appeal.

Associated documents