‘UAE’s notorious penal code limiting free speech has severe implications for expats including South Africans’

Pursuing careers and taking up job opportunities in the Emirates comes with a huge price: silence! writes Iqbal Jassat

South African expats residing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), be warned: over zealous securocrats in the Gulf oligarchies are watching you and all foreign migrants, ready to pounce if you dare to criticise any of its allies. 

Fear has gripped foreigners who are employed in various sectors – ranging from banking to teaching, following the imprisonment of a Jordanian resident of the UAE. 

His crime? Criticising the Jordanian government. 

Human Rights Watch who have been monitoring the case of Ahmed Etoum, 46, reported that he has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for his Facebook posts criticizing Jordan’s government. 

The ludicrous charges for which the court convicted him are not only a disgrace and a serious violation of his rights to free speech, but also a form of intimidation to silence expats. 

These charges include committing “acts against a foreign state” that could “damage political relations” with that state and “endanger national security” inside the UAE. 

“UAE authorities have long clamped down on public criticism of 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 Human Rights Watch. “Regional cooperation to root out and silence independent voices and criticism seems to be the only meaningful Arab unity these governments are capable of.”

Details of Etoum’s harassment reveal that he lived in the UAE with his family for about five years. Both he and his wife worked as teachers in Abu Dhabi. 

As is expected of conciencious people concerned with the suppression of social justice, Etoum frequently used his Facebook profile, where he has just over 4,000 followers, to “voice political opinions, often criticizing Jordan’s royal family, its intelligence agency, its government, and government policies.”

According to Human Rights Watch who reviewed the Facebook posts referred to in the court ruling as evidence against Etoum, “all of them” are “nonviolent political commentary.”

The outrageous persecution of innocent people by UAE’s unelected leader Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), a close ally of Israel and the House of Saud, shares notoriety with his friends Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Sultan. 

According to Etoum’s family members as relayed to Human Rights Watch, UAE security forces arrested him on May 14, 2020 as he walked back from the neighborhood supermarket with his two children, ages 9 and 4. The family member said that a masked man abducted Etoum and forced him into a car, leaving the children to walk home unattended.

The horror does not end there. Held without trial in solidarity confinement in a secret location for at least four months, Etoum is currently held in al-Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi. Neither his family members nor his lawyer have been permitted to visit him. 

In summary the terrible ordeal Etoum has been subjected to results from charges based on both the penal code and the 2012 combatting cybercrimes law:

  1. Deliberately carrying out an act against a foreign country (Jordan) that could damage political relations between the UAE and Jordan, by publishing on Facebook news and information that contain insults and ridicule toward Jordan, its king, and its government.
  2. Publishing information on Facebook that promotes ideas that can incite and stir discord and disturb public order and social peace.
  3. Using Facebook to publish information that endangers the security of the state and its supreme interests and harm public order.

The 10 years jail term is to be followed by deportation, confiscation of his devices used “in the crime,” the deletion of incriminating posts, and the shutdown of his social media accounts. 

For South African expats residing in Dubai, Sharjah and other parts of the UAE, the punishment meted out to Ahmed Etoum, serves as a warning. 

In Israeli parlance it is known as “normalisation of the abnormal”. 

How will the South African government react in the event one or more of its citizens are arrested and face life imprisonment for posting commentary on their Facebook pages, which the UAE deems to be in violation of its repressive penal code? 

UAE authorities have a reputation for limiting lawful speech in violation of international standards. They have a long tradition of assaulting freedom of expression and association. 

*Iqbal Jassat is an executive of the Media Review Network, Johannesburg.

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