It is a shocking two minutes and fifty-five seconds of audio that was smuggled out of Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathba prison. In the audio, a young female prisoner – Maryam Al Baloushi – recounts a grim story of abuse, threats and coercion at the hands of Emirati security officers and prison authorities. The audio was recently secured by the Geneva-based International Centre for Justice and Human Rights, which has vouched for its veracity.
Twenty-one-year-old student Maryam Al Baloushi was arrested in 2015. Like many others seized by the state security system in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), she says that she was held in an unknown place and forced to sign a false confession, before finally being brought to trial in 2017.
Maryam was convicted of providing funding to a terrorist organisation and sentenced to five years in prison. She says that all she did was send money – in good faith – to a suffering Syrian family. At her trial she told the presiding judge that she was subjected to torture in order to extract a confession and that she was denied access to her family and to lawyers. The judge ignored her allegations and sentenced her regardless.
Her story is very similar to those told many times by others in the UAE – a collection of seven Gulf emirates, the most important of which are Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is the modus operandi of a country that claims to be tolerant but punishes any dissent with a degree of ferocity that utterly belies that claim.
The same fate that befell Maryam was visited on internationally respected economist Dr Nasser Bin Ghaith and prominent human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. Both received ten-year sentences after being disappeared – in Dr Bin Ghaith’s case for nearly a year – for the crime of “posting false information,” namely tweets that were critical of the regime. Here, again, the trial judge ignored allegations of torture and the use of confessions secured under duress.
A British researcher from Durham University Matthew Hedges was seized in May of this year and held in solitary confinement for nearly six months before being brought to trial. He was charged with spying, seemingly because he was doing research on the Muslim Brotherhood which has been decreed a terrorist organisation by the UAE.
One of the more chilling moments in Maryam Al Baloushi’s account is what happened to her while she was being interrogated. At one point she says: “During the investigation, I told the investigator that sooner or later I will be released and I will complain to human rights organisations and Mohammed Bin Zayed about you.” Mohamed Bin Zayed is the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the effective ruler of the UAE, yet Maryam says that the investigator’s response was to laugh and tell her “it was Mohammed Bin Zayed himself that allowed (me) to beat (you)”.
Maryam Al Baloushi also alleges that women held at Al Wathba prison are regularly beaten, threatened with rape, denied medical treatment and family visits and, when they protest, punished with solitary confinement. She adds that in letters she wrote to the authorities she challenged them to execute her “if I am a traitor”. She also speaks about suicides among female inmates.
Her harrowing account does not sit well with the image that the UAE has spent vast sums of money promoting. The tape was released the same week that Dubai was hosting the World Tolerance Summit, a lavish concoction intended to further embellish the narrative that the Gulf state is an oasis of openness.
As the organisers put it: “Through a wide variety of activities (the Tolerance Summit) will delve deep into the ways by which individuals, organisations and nations can be open-minded, understanding and accepting of others’ opinions and beliefs in order to have a peaceful co-existence and cooperate in generating new ideas to build a prosperous and sustainable future.”
As mission statements go that is a whopper, no doubt crafted by the very finest PR firm that money can buy. The convenors claimed that the summit brought together the “biggest gathering of government leaders, key figures from the public and private sectors, peacekeeping ambassadors and change-makers from around the world”.
I wonder, as all those delegates and VIPS settled in to speeches and tucked into canapés at the five star Armani Hotel Dubai – would any of them give a thought for Maryam Al Baloushi?
Would any of those academics present think to ask about their distinguished colleague Dr Nasser Bin Ghaith? Or about Matthew Hedges? Would the “change-makers” query the fate of Ahmed Mansoor who, in 2015, was given the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for his defence of human rights?
Sadly, I know the answer. I can only hope and pray that by taking the enormously-courageous decision to speak out, Maryam Al Baloushi will not suffer further abuse from her jailers.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.