UAE human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor knew that one night the men in black balaclavas would arrive and seize him.
I remember once, several years ago on a Skype call, Ahmed joked with me that he was “the last man talking” in the United Arab Emirates and the region about human rights violations. He pretty much was. Almost every other activist in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries is in jail, in exile or silenced by the fear of what the authorities will do to them and to their loved ones.
Ahmed Mansoor and his family have paid a heavy price for his human rights advocacy. In early 2011, after signing a petition calling for democratic and economic reforms, he was subjected to an online smear campaign orchestrated by the state security apparatus. “Twitter, Facebook, text messages, television and radio spread false information about me to create an environment of hatred,” he said. It was a campaign that included many death threats.
Then in April of that year, he was arrested, held in jail for nearly eight months and convicted of “insulting the rulers” in a grossly unfair trial. On November 27, 2011, Mansoor was sentenced to three years in jail. The next day, thanks largely to an international outcry, he and four others sentenced with him were pardoned.
By the time he was released, he had already lost his job as a senior engineer in a telecommunications firm. Subsequently, the government refused to issue him a Certificate of Good Conduct. Without the certificate, he couldn’t be employed in either the private or public sectors. His bank accounts were frozen. His passport was confiscated and he was banned from travel — a ban which the authorities refused to lift so he could receive in person the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in Geneva in 2015.
I had written to the judges’ panel in support of his nomination for the prize. Here is part of what I said: “Should the judges reach a decision to give Ahmed Mansoor the (award) they will have acknowledged an unswerving defender of human rights in a region and at a moment when those rights are under unprecedented attack. They will have kept alive a flame of hope for all those in the Gulf states and beyond who have been intimidated, imprisoned and abused by their governments. They will, in this most dangerously violent of times for the Middle East and the world, have saluted a voice of peaceful protest that refuses to be silenced.”
Despite the risks he faced, Ahmed continued to work with journalists like myself and with international human rights organizations to advance the cause of human rights in the UAE. Then, in March 2017, Ahmed was seized and taken to an unknown place. His family had no idea where he was and had virtually no contact with him. He was denied access to a lawyer of his choosing. Nearly a year after he was taken, he was brought to court, sentenced to 10 years in jail and fined 1 million dirham ($272,300) after being convicted under draconian anti-terror laws of “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leaders” and of “seeking to damage the relationship of the UAE with its neighbours by publishing false reports and information on social media.” In late December last year, his final appeal was rejected.
I think of him often and of the great courage he displays in prison and this poem, one of his, reminds me of that courage and of his fortitude:
What are all those stars for?
And the night
And the clouds
And the sky erected like a tent in the desert
In a place like this
Suppressing activists like Ahmed Mansoor, crushing dissent in the Middle East has never been easier thanks to the Trump administration. Under Donald Trump, the US has abandoned any pretext of concern about human rights issues anywhere in the world. The American president, like the Arab dictators, hates criticism. Like them, he is thin-skinned and exceptionally arrogant. Like them, he lies blatantly while accusing the media of telling lies when it raises legitimate criticism. Like them he uses his office to advance his family’s fortunes. Like them, he seeks to silence dissenting voices.
We in the West must not be silent in demanding that the UAE government release Ahmed Mansoor. It is already a deep stain on the UK that we have accepted so many gross violations of human rights in Egypt, in the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in return for trade deals and weapons sales. We must demand that Alistair Burt, the Middle East minister, and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary speak up, and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office condemns the crackdown on dissent in the UAE and other Gulf states.
Ahmed would want me to mention Alya Abdulnoor, a young woman dying of cancer, chained to a hospital bed and refused permission to spend her last days at home. He’d want me to mention Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith, a distinguished economist serving 10 years, and the lawyer Mohammed al-Roken, and the many other prisoners of conscience cruelly held in jail in the UAE. He would want me to speak of the Bahraini opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman and the human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, and thousands of other political prisoners and protesters held in Bahrain’s Jau Prison; and of Loujain al-Hathloul and dozens of other women activists held in Saudi jails, subjected to appalling abuse.
He would want me, and all of us here, to break the silence that vicious regimes have imposed on peaceful activists and that the acceptance and encouragement of western governments has allowed to flourish.
How did you not see me,
As if I were hiding behind a mountain,
And how did I see you then,
Passing in a distance of two leagues,
Curving the moon with a gaze,
And pulling the stars,
To the field?!
Ahmed Mansoor knew that one night the men in black balaclavas would arrive and seize him. I asked him once why he persisted in going down a road that would lead again to his incarceration. He said: “The only way to counter repression is by revealing it. And yes there is always that possibility that I will go back to jail. But if we do not talk, who will?” We will, Ahmed, because we must. Your courage dictates we cannot and we will not be silent.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.