The decision by a United Arab Emirates court to sentence a Jordanian resident to 10 years in prison in October for criticising Jordan’s government was based entirely on a series of peaceful Facebook posts, a rights group has said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged authorities in the UAE to immediately release 46-year-old Ahmed Etoum, saying he was convicted solely for his “peaceful criticism of the Jordanian royal family and government”.
In a statement on Thursday, the US-based rights group said the court convicted him in October 2020 of using Facebook to commit “acts against a foreign state” that could “damage political relations” with that state and “endanger national security” inside the UAE.
“This is a terrifying trend as many Arab governments arrest or repatriate for detention citizens of other Arab states who criticise their own govt policies,” Rami Khouri, senior fellow and professor at the American University of Beirut, said in a tweet on Saturday.
“The result transforms most of the Arab region into a single authoritarian entity where individuals fear to speak their mind.”
This is a terrifying trend as many Arab governments arrest or repatriate for detention citizens of other Arab states who criticize their own govt policies. The result transforms most of the Arab region into a single authoritarian entity where individuals fear to speak their mind https://t.co/Xn64UZHPeS
— Rami G. Khouri (@RamiKhouri) February 13, 2021
Etoum has lived in Abu Dhabi for about five years with his wife and two children where he worked as a school teacher. He often used Facebook to voice his opinions – to his just more than 4,000 followers – on matters in his home country where an economic crisis is ongoing.
According to his family members, Etoum is being held at al-Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi, HRW said. Before being able to contact his family, Etoum was placed in solitary confinement for four months and was only provided with a lawyer after his first hearing.
His arrest will “not increase any security for anyone, but only further dehumanise Arab men and women who cannot peacefully express their views”, Khouri said in another Twitter post.
“It also robs our societies of the views, ideas and contributions of citizens, which are essential for genuine national development.”
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On October 8, 2020, the State Security Circuit at the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals convicted Etoum on charges based on both the penal code and a 2012 law on combatting cybercrime.
The charges include “deliberately carrying out an act against a foreign country that could damage political relations”, and publishing information on Facebook that “promotes ideas that could incite or stir discord and disturb public order and social peace”.
HRW said UAE authorities have long used broadly worded laws to limit lawful speech in violation of international standards.
They have carried out a “sustained assault” on freedom of expression and association since 2011, the group said, adding that UAE residents who have been outspoken about human rights are at “serious risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and torture”.
“UAE authorities have long clamped down on public criticism of the UAE authorities and policies, and have apparently extended this repression to critics of other countries as well,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.
“Regional cooperation to root out and silence independent voices and criticism seems to be the only meaningful Arab unity these governments are capable of.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, said the UAE is now “making it clear” to the majority of its workforce that they will be “convicted and jailed if they dare to express their critical opinions about anything, anywhere”.
She added that Jordan has regularly failed to defend or assist its citizens persecuted for sharing their views in the UAE, as well as in Saudi Arabia.
According to HRW, UAE authorities in 2017 sentenced a Jordanian journalist who was then living in the country to three years in prison over his online criticism of Israeli and Egyptian military actions in and near the besieged Gaza Strip.
Tayseer al-Najjar was released in February 2019, two months after he completed his sentence.