UAE: Unrelenting Harassment of Dissidents’ Families


UAE flag with Dubai skyline


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(Beirut) – The United Arab Emirates state security apparatus has targeted dozens of relatives of detained Emirati dissidents and of dissidents living abroad, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch documented the targeting of relatives of eight UAE dissidents. These include dissidents who have moved abroad and those currently serving lengthy sentences in the UAE. The government has revoked the citizenship of 19 relatives of two dissidents.  At least 30 relatives of six of the dissidents are currently banned from traveling;; and 22 relatives of three of the dissidents are barred from renewing their identity documents. Between 2013 and 2019, the relatives of all eight dissidents faced restrictions on their access to jobs and higher education.

“UAE authorities, in their determination to crush dissent, have allowed their state security apparatus to use its near-unchecked power to continually punish the families of activists, both detained and living abroad,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should cease these vindictive attacks, which amount to collective punishment.”

In each case, the measures taken against relatives of dissidents appear arbitrary and unjustified. None of the restrictions had a clear legal basis, and none of the targeted relatives have been able to get an official government or judicial document mandating the action. Nor have they been able to appeal.

“Whenever the family tried to dig deeper to understand why the government was denying access to a service or holding an application pending indefinitely, they would be told, verbally only, that the obstruction was happening at the state security level,” said one dissident living abroad.

State security officials also regularly question, conduct surveillance on, and threaten UAE-based relatives of all eight dissidents, they said. They said that officials had even harassed extended family members, friends, and mere acquaintances simply for maintaining relationships with the families.

“Our cousins and friends all cut us off, because anyone who would frequent our home would be summoned and asked detailed questions about us and our lives,” said one detained dissident’s relative living abroad. “You become a pariah in society,” said another.

The mandate, objectives, and powers of the state security apparatus are outlined in Federal Law No. 2 of 2003, which was later amended by federal decree in 2011. Despite the UAE’s claims to the contrary, in its comments for a May 2015 report on the UAE by the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, neither the law nor the amendment can be found in the UAE official gazette or elsewhere online. Human Rights Watch managed to acquire an unpublished copy of the 2003 law, but not the 2011 decree amending it.

Under the 2003 law, the UAE’s state security apparatus reports directly to the president and may take any action inside or outside the state to protect state security within the limits of the law and other legislation. It authorizes the agency to curb any political or organized activity by an individual or an association that may compromise the state’s safety and security, the system of governance, or national unity; harm the economy; or weaken the status of the state and provoke hostility against it or undermine confidence in it. State security officials may use force to the extent necessary to carry out their duties.

The state security apparatus also has the authority to embed state security offices in the state’s federal ministries, its public institutions, its semi-governmental corporations and organizations as well as embassies and consulates. It has the authority to deny, halt, or approve access to key rights and government services. Neither citizens nor UAE residents can appeal a decision made on state security grounds.

One activist living abroad said that: “from the 2000s, state security slowly gained control of everything in the country. Everything, from obtaining trade licenses to renewing identity documents, is at their mercy.” Security clearances are also required to obtain university scholarships and jobs, and to host events.

Since 2011, when UAE authorities began a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch has regularly documented serious allegations of abuse at the hands of state security forces against dissidents and activists who have spoken up about human rights issues. The most egregious abuses are arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and torture. The UAE has arrested and prosecuted hundreds of lawyers, judges, teachers, and activists since then, and shut down key civil society associations and the offices of foreign organizations, effectively crushing any space for dissent.

In 2016, the UAE named Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s son, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed bin Zayed, head of the state security apparatus, and in 2017, the deputy national security advisor.

The state security apparatus used their widespread powers to also subject dissidents’ families to arbitrary and indiscriminate harassment, violating their basic rights to citizenship, work, education, freedom of movement, and privacy, Human Rights Watch said.

“The UAE’s police state not only punishes those who peacefully dissent, but harasses and abuses even those related to them, with their intolerance for criticism reaching comical proportions,” Page said. “It’s shocking that so many other countries and influential people continue to associate themselves with a government that collectively punishes innocent citizens.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of exiled dissidents and dissidents sentenced to lengthy prison terms in the UAE following unfair trials. In each of the cases, state security forces have subjected one or more relatives to arbitrary and extrajudicial punishments, as well as threats and harassment in apparent reprisal for their relatives’ activism. The incidents Human Rights Watch documented occurred between 2013 and 2019. Human Rights Watch is withholding identifying details to protect people from retaliation.

Travel Bans

The people interviewed said that travel bans are among the most common tools used to target relatives of dissidents, both detained and abroad. All eight people interviewed said that they, as well as one or more other family members, had been banned from traveling for extended periods between 2011 and 2019, with at least 30 family members of six of the interviewees currently banned from travel. They include mothers over the age of 90, children under the age of 18, as well as cousins and other relatives through marriage.

“My mom is banned from travel for two years now because of me,” said one activist living abroad. “I haven’t seen my siblings in four years,” said the relative of a detained dissident whose siblings in the UAE were banned from travel in 2015.

In most cases documented, family members were not notified of a travel ban and instead found out at the airport as they prepared to leave the country. The relatives were informed of the travel bans only verbally, and when some asked airport officials who issued the order, they were simply told the order came from the state security apparatus.

“Travel bans are a huge injustice,” said an activist living abroad who says his extended family members living in the UAE have been banned from traveling and experienced other forms of harassment even though they have not engaged in political or social activism. “Imagine not being able to leave the country for seven years or more. They are paying the price for something they weren’t even involved in.” Because the travel bans are not court-ordered, none of those affected have had the chance to appeal or challenge the decisions.

Citizenship Revocations; Restrictions on Renewing Identity Documents

The UAE has used citizenship revocations as a tool to punish activists and critics of the government. In instances in which the government has revoked a man’s citizenship, the UAE’s nationality law allows for the subsequent revocation of the citizenship of his wife and children.

In two of the cases, UAE authorities arbitrarily revoked the citizenship of 19 family members of two dissidents, leaving them stateless and depriving them of basic rights. While the law requires publishing the decree withdrawing citizenship in the official gazette, neither family has managed to obtain a copy the decree or find it in the official gazette, preventing them from challenging the decision.

“My relatives continued their education and work for a little while after [our citizenships were revoked] but then they started running into trouble as they did not have any valid identification documents anymore,” said one relative living abroad. “It affected every aspect of their lives. They couldn’t get university scholarships, or buy property, or work legally. They became like the bidun [stateless citizens in the Gulf].”

In separate cases the families of four dissidents were also denied access to basic rights and services, even though the authorities did not revoke their citizenship, because they could not renew their passports and their national identification cards, a process that requires state security approval. In all four cases, the people interviewed said, the denial came from the state security apparatus.

“They [authorities] wanted to block my relatives from studying, from getting a driver’s license, from accessing health care,” said one relative living abroad.

“They [my family members] couldn’t renew their passports or IDs, which meant they couldn’t get anything done. It is as if you are paralyzed,” said an activist living abroad.

In 2017, two presidential decrees removed the Interior Ministry’s authority to grant and revoke citizenship, issue and renew passports and other identity papers, and control foreigners’ entry and residency and effectively transferred the authority to the state security apparatus. The decrees established a Federal Authority of Identity and Citizenship headed by the deputy director of the Supreme Council for National Security, Ali Hamad al-Shamsi, with the head of the state security apparatus in Dubai, Talal Belhoul, as his deputy.

Twenty-two family members of three dissidents remain unable to renew relevant identity documents, leaving them effectively trapped in the UAE and struggling to get basic rights and services.

Restrictions on Employment

To get a job in the UAE, whether in the public sector or the private sector and whether a citizen or resident, or to get a trade license, one is required to complete a security clearance process. All those interviewed described restrictions on relatives’ access to employment and business opportunities, with several tracing the inability to acquire or keep jobs to the need for security clearances.

“My relatives can’t work,” said the relative of a detained dissident. “For any job they apply to, they need security clearances and they never get them.”

Several people said that the security clearance process for federal public service is especially rigorous and that many of their family members took lower-paying private sector jobs to sustain themselves and their families. Three people said that even though their family members in the UAE were able to get private sector jobs, the companies would fire them soon after they started, citing the state security apparatus as the reason.

“My nieces and nephews who recently graduated universities, they are all finding difficulty getting jobs because of the security clearances,” said an activist living abroad. “Even jobs in the private sector sometimes require a security clearance. Sometimes, after they [state security forces] find out that they’ve been hired in the private sector, they get them fired.”

Active Surveillance and Intermittent Questioning

Over the past several years, the UAE has invested considerably in advancing its already extensive cybersurveillance capabilities, which it uses to target leading human rights activists, foreign journalists, and even world leaders. In 2017, the then-recently appointed head of the state security apparatus in Dubai, Talal Belhoul, also became chairman of the board of directors of the UAE’s federal telecommunications regulatory agency, which is responsible for “every aspect of the telecommunications and information technology industries in the UAE.” Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report on the UAE details how the agency promotes rampant censorship and pervasive surveillance.

All of those interviewed said they believed state security forces carried out active surveillance of them and of family members. They said that the surveillance and intermittent questioning of many of them have had serious psychological effects on family members and have led families to severely limit communication with relatives outside the country.

One activist who lives abroad said: “We live our lives with the understanding that absolutely everything we do is surveilled, that our devices are surveilled. When I talk to my mother [in the UAE], I talk to her about simple things. She always says, don’t give me any details. She doesn’t even want to hear what I have to say, so that she doesn’t have to repeat it when they question her next.”

Several of those interviewed described a detailed and intrusive questioning process at the hands of state security officials. “My siblings get summoned for questioning every little while,” said one activist. “They try to get information out of them about me and about other families of detainees. They ask them about their businesses, their trade licenses, work, their children. They ask about me, how I live, how I spend my money, where I get income from.”

Often, the questioning is coupled with threats, interviewees said. “Every once in a while, they call my sons, they tell them not to write anything, not to speak up on social media networks. Every time they find that organizations outside are highlighting our suffering, they would threaten us with arrest, withdrawal of citizenship, firing from jobs, an all-round constricting of our livelihood and ability to live a dignified life,” said one relative who remains in the UAE.

“They ask her to spy for them,” said an activist of one relative in the UAE. “They tell her, do this for us and we’ll let you renew your IDs. There’s always a catch. Help us and we’ll help you, they would say.”

Social Exclusion

Both activists and relatives of detained activists said that the social exclusion their families suffered as a result of the state security actions was one of the most difficult consequences of their or their relatives’ activism.

“Our cousins all cut us off,” said one relative of a detained activist who now lives abroad. “Because anyone who would frequent our home would be summoned and questioned and asked detailed questions about us and our lives. We were completely excluded from society. People stopped engaging with us fearing for their own well-being.”

“The society is afraid to socialize with us,” said another. “People would even refuse to marry into our family. The security forces would actually intervene and say to them, if you marry into this family, you will face problems.”