At midnight on 20 March, a group of ten uniformed police officers arrived at the apartment of Ahmed Mansoor in the city of Ajman, in the United Arab Emirates. They conducted a search for electronic devices, even confiscating the phones used by Mansoor’s children. With all the laptops and mobile phones lifted from the house, Mansoor was taken into custody. A statement later that day by WAM, the UAE’s official news agency, explained that Mansoor’s detention was on suspicion of using social media to publish “flawed information”; “false news” designed to “incite sectarian strife and hatred”; and “harm the reputation of the state.” There has been no news from or about him since.
The UAE authorities have harassed Mansoor for six years. In April 2011, they detained him over his peaceful calls for reform. Before that arrest, Mansoor was one of 133 signatories on a petition for universal and direct elections in the UAE and for the Federal National Council, a government advisory board, to have legislative powers. It was not an extreme request; indeed, it was very reasonable from a democratic point of view. Mansoor also administered an online forum called Al-Hewar Al-Emarati that criticised UAE government policy and leaders. Although it was all well within the bounds of freedom of expression that should be guaranteed under international law and the norms of human decency, since then, Mansoor has found it almost impossible to find employment, and has not been allowed to leave the country.
In late 2012, a stranger approached Mansoor inside Ajman University, where he was studying law. The man spat in his face and pushed him to the ground. Mansoor was able to fend off his assailant and pursue him to a parked car, where another man was waiting to drive him away. The attacker removed the rear number plate before getting into the car. Six days later, a taller, stronger man approached Mansoor on the campus, and without saying a word grabbed Mansoor by the neck and punched him several times on the head; no doubt the security services had tasked someone better suited to the task. Mansoor resisted, and his attacker ran off when other people approached. Yet again, a car was parked nearby and an accomplice drove the attacker away. A third man obstructed Mansoor’s attempts to see the licence plate. On top of these physical assaults, Mansoor has also learned to live with regular anonymous death threats sent to him and his family.
Mansoor was the 2015 Laureate for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, but the UAE authorities did not allow him to travel to Geneva to collect the prize. His communications and contacts are monitored closely. In August 2016, the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab reported that Mansoor had received suspicious text messages on his iPhone promising information about detainees tortured in UAE jails; it was suggested coyly that he should click on the link provided. Smelling a rat, Mansoor passed the message on securely to experts. Citizen Lab discovered that by clicking on the link he would have installed sophisticated spyware on his iPhone; the spyware was produced by an Israeli company. The programme installed covertly would have allowed an outside operator to control his iPhone’s telephone and camera, monitor his chat applications, and track his movements. Similar methods for breaking into iPhones have been valued at $1 million, leading Citizen Lab to label Mansoor “the million dollar dissident.”
It is hard to gauge exactly what has irritated the UAE authorities so much. Certainly, they have become tetchier of late. On 16 January, they detained Abdulkhaleq Abdulla for ten days after the prominent Emirati academic and vocal supporter of the government posted a tweet that praised the UAE as the “Emirates of tolerance” but bemoaned the authorities’ lack of respect for freedom of expression and political liberties. What made the arrest so curious was that Abdulla was an adviser to Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and had been almost obsequious in his support of the regime thus far. A retired professor of political science at the University of the United Arab Emirates, he was the epitome of an apologist for the regime, and yet Professor Abdulla disappeared for ten days. He resurfaced, tweeting: “I am returning after a 10-day interruption. I was on a surprise trip that was enjoyable and extremely beneficial. It will be the start of a new phase of communication with followers. Thank you.” His tweets have been anodyne ever since.
Hopefully, Ahmed Mansour will also resurface soon. It is clear that the UAE regime is lashing out at friends and critics alike nowadays, but not so clear why. Perhaps, as with all bullies, it has personal issues that it needs to deal with. Self-assured states which are happy with their place in the world and secure, and are not trying to prove a point, have no need to persecute their own people in this way. Mansoor should be released without delay.