On 15 November, PEN centres the world over marked the fortieth Day of the Imprisoned Writer by highlighting the cases of several writers and journalists who are imprisoned or facing prosecution. These include Dr Mohammed Al-Roken, an author, academic and human rights lawyer from the United Arab Emirates.
According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, the UAE continues to present itself as a progressive, tolerant and rights-respecting nation while at the same time fiercely restricting freedom of speech and association. Activists and dissidents are at risk of incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, and prolonged solitary confinement. They can be denied legal assistance and forced confessions are often used as evidence in trial proceedings. Those critical of the government are frequently imprisoned on trumped-up charges and may be detained without any legal basis after having completed their sentences. Overcrowding, unhygienic conditions and inadequate medical care are the norm in Emirati prisons.
The authorities have persecuted Al-Roken for many years. He was first arrested in August 2006 and interrogated about his role in founding the Emirati Human Rights Association. During this time, the authorities confiscated his passport, subjected him to surveillance and refused to let him leave the country. He was also banned from any journalistic activities and from giving interviews to the media. On 17 July 2012, state security officers once again arrested Al-Roken. They searched his house, confiscated his personal belongings and took him to an unidentified location where he was detained in solitary confinement for three months without access to a lawyer or his family. In March 2013, he was tried before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in the notorious ‘UAE 94’ case, which saw Al-Roken and ninety-three other activists facing several bogus charges, including plotting to overthrow the government and seeking to infiltrate schools, universities and ministries. The defendants were held in secret detention. The state prosecutor’s file was sent to the court only a few days before the trial began and was based on the forced confessions of two of the accused, one of whom later recanted. The alleged leader of the plot, Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassimi, is a cousin of the ruler of the Ras Al Khaimah emirate. Other defendants included three judges, two human rights activists, lawyers, teachers, academics and students.
In June 2013, several human rights organisations claimed that Al-Roken and other defendants had been subjected to systematic mistreatment, including torture, while in pre-trial detention. The following month, Al-Roken was sentenced to ten years in prison, followed by three years of probation. PEN and other lobby groups believe that the trial was unfair and that his imprisonment is a violation of his right to freedom of expression and association. In April 2014, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) raised concerns over claims that Al-Roken and other defendants had been beaten, threatened with electrocution, insulted and humiliated in attempts to force them to confess to acts they had not committed. The WGAD also highlighted allegations that the defendants had been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, exposed to unremitting fluorescent lighting and inadequate heating and were hooded when removed from their cells. It further raised concerns about the flagrant breaches of fair trial guarantees, including the denial of the right to appeal. The WGAD urged the UAE government to release the defendants and provide them with adequate reparations.
Al-Roken’s case exemplifies the authoritarian nature of the Emirati regime and its repression of free speech. He has been serving his prison sentence in the notorious Al-Razeen maximum-security prison, often referred to as the Guantanamo of the UAE. In July 2019, the WGAD and three UN experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, expressed renewed concerns about his detention conditions. Experts noted that he regularly faces arbitrary disciplinary measures, including solitary confinement without access to daylight, invasive body searches and the seizing of personal items, as well as being deprived of family visits and medical care.
Readers might like to send appeals condemning Dr Mohammed Al-Roken’s imprisonment, in violation of his right to freedom of expression; urging the UAE authorities to release Al-Roken immediately and unconditionally and to overturn his conviction; and seeking assurances that, pending his release, Al-Roken be granted regular access to his family, lawyers and all necessary medical care, and that he is protected from torture and other forms of ill-treatment.
Appeals to be addressed to:
President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Ministry of Presidential Affairs
Corniche Road POB 280
United Arab Emirates
Fax: +971 2 622 2228
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai
His Excellency Mansoor Abulhoul
Ambassador of the UAE to the UK
Send messages of solidarity and calls for Dr Mohammed Al-Roken’s release on social media using the hashtags #MohammedAlRoken and #FreeAlRoken and tag @pen_int