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Ignoring human rights: another fawning pawn for the UAE

Lawyer Mohammed Al-Roken, from the United Arab Emirates, is in trouble. He is serving his second year of a 10-year jail term. He is a prisoner of conscience, say Amnesty International, imprisoned solely for his work as a lawyer and activist, defending others whose rights have been denied, and for speaking critically of the UAE authorities.

In July last year, Al-Roken was tried as part of the "UAE 94", alongside 93 other lawyers, judges, teachers and students. He was found guilty of "attempting to overthrow the government".

The UAE 94 judicial process was unfair in too many ways – some defendants weren't allowed to see a lawyer, others were kept in solitary confinement ahead of the trial. Many said that they had been tortured, and confessions obtained through torture were used against the group in court. Most of them were on trial for political reasons, simply because they had criticised the UAE regime, or for being members of a peaceful Islamist group – Al-Islah. They were all denied the right to appeal the verdict – a crime under international law.

Sixty-nine of the 94 were found guilty, receiving prison sentences ranging from seven to 15 years – and the remaining 25 were acquitted. Shortly before their trial, they released another petition calling for a democratically elected parliament, couched in the terms of the UAE's Constitution. It went unnoticed.

Al-Roken, as he remains in prison, represents "a big loss to the UAE " as Ahmed Mansour, another indomitable human rights defender in the country, puts it. "I want him released today – no, yesterday."

Mansour knows the work of Al-Roken intimately. He was part of a small group who, in 2011, drew up a similar petition calling for a parliament to be elected on the basis of universal suffrage. By way of reward – five men, including Mansour, were accused of "publically insulting" the Emirati monarchy. They were later pardoned but only after eight months in prison, and a lengthy hunger strike. They continue to be harassed by authorities. Al-Roken acted as their lawyer until his arrest.

As ever – the UAE has managed to find supporters in the West to whitewash their crackdown on Al-Roken, and the peaceful Islamist groups he represented.

An interesting case is Trevor Neilson – co-founder of the Global Philanthropy Group (GPG). Much of his work is admirable – GPG connects high net worth individuals with good causes. Celebrities like John Legend, Avril Lavigne, Madonna, Sir Richard Branson, Brad Pitt and Bono are among his clients. Neilson is a serial NGO man – having worked on the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation, the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation, and the Genocide Intervention Network. He was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In an article Neilson wrote in January 2013 for the Huffington Post, he made his views on the UAE clear. Entitled "Supporting Those Who Share Our Values in the Middle East" – he cited a recent face-to-face meeting he had enjoyed with Sheikh Mohammed, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE. "Sheikh Mohammed shared that 70 per cent of those graduating from schools in the UAE are girls, citing his belief that this was because girls are 'more studious' than boys. Women make up 65 per cent of those who serve in the government as a whole."

Pointedly – he then added "painting a stark contrast to the views of Al-Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood". By that time – Al-Roken and his Al-Islah clients in the "UAE 94" had been in prison for four months. Many had been tortured. But in Neilson's book – because the Muslim Brotherhood possesses somewhat strange views on women, torture is OK.

But with all due respect to Neilson's professional record in philanthropy, you have to be plain stupid, or wilfully ignorant, to think that the status quo enforced by the monarchy in the United Arab Emirates is much different. It's arguably worse.

Afsana Lauchaux, a former civil servant from east London, was branded an unfit and un-Islamic mother by a UAE court earlier this year for "refusing to obey her husband". The court also ruled that she was a bad mother. The evidence? Her son had eczema.

Lauchaux was in fact a victim of domestic abuse. Though he is not Muslims, her ex-husband deliberately invoked Sharia law during the custody case over their son, and the court permitted a litany of lies to come spouting from his lips, while defence witnesses for his former wife weren't permitted to give evidence.

Tess Lorrigan, a schoolteacher from Britain, was deported from Dubai in 2011. She was working without her estranged husband's permission, which is still an offence under UAE law.

A 24-year-old Norwegian woman reported being attacked to the police and received a prison sentence for "perjury, consensual extramarital sex and alcohol consumption".

In 2010, a Muslim woman in Abu Dhabi retracted her allegations of being gang-raped by six men, claiming that the police threatened her with corporal punishment for premarital sex.

It's no surprise then that over 50 per cent of women living in the UAE say that they would not report a rape to police.

In another column for the Huffington Post, this time soppily entitled "Abu Dhabi, Misunderstood by Many, Emerging As Philanthropic Capital of the Middle East," he again attacks Al-Islah, who he condemned for their links to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (perhaps he approves of the bloody crackdown there too?). He questioned the Guardian for an article they published called "The UAE's Descent into Oppression".

Neilson rebuked the Guardian for not declaring that the author was a member of Al-Islah. This is an editorial mistake, for sure, but what has it got to do with Neilson, or charitable giving? What's it got to do with the Global Philanthropy Group, under whose name Neilson was writing?

It's almost as if someone in Abu Dhabi read the piece in the Guardian, and thought – "Hey, who can I get to write something to counter it?"

And the praise continues – 850 words straight out of the press releases of the UAE government, praising their (admirable) achievements on polio, women's education, grants to UNICEF and praise from Bill Gates. Why the spiel? The Bin Zayeds give a lot of money in charity and aid. Like any rich government anywhere.

But, unlike conventional governments, the money the Bin Zayeds give comes directly from their family. This makes the model similar to the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation, an organisation which Neilson is closely affiliated with. It also makes a great business opportunity for Global Philanthropy Group, which is adept at hooking up celebrities with these personality driven funds. Why is Neilson so passionately spouting the Bin Zayed line on Islamists? You can't help but see the dollar signs spinning. Who pays the price? The UAE 94; Mohammed Al-Roken, Ahmed Mansour and the countless others calling for democracy in their country. You can disagree with their political beliefs – you might not want to vote for them, but to whitewash and excuse their torture and illegal detention is unforgivable.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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