On 4 May last year, an Emirati woman died in Abu Dhabi's Tawam Hospital. Her name was Alia Abdulnoor. She died chained to a bed in a windowless room with an armed guard her only companion. Her family had already been denied permission to take her home to die even though her body was riddled with cancer. What had Alia Abdulnoor done to deserve such an awful fate?
She was arrested in 2015, charged and convicted of supporting terrorist organisations in Syria. According to the Geneva-based International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR), she was detained in an unknown place for four months, subjected to torture and forced to sign a false confession which was used to convict her. Alia Abdulnoor was not a terrorist, nor was she raising funds for terrorists; she was concerned about the impact of the civil war in Syria on women and children and had been collecting donations on their behalf.
In the time that she spent in prison she was denied access to chemotherapy. Her cancer spread rapidly and aggressively. In the last few weeks of her life she was unable to walk or even stand up. And yet she remained chained to a hospital bed.
As Covid-19 rips through the world it is easy to forget about people like Alia Abdulnoor, and to ignore other prisoners of conscience held in Abu Dhabi's prisons. Among them are Ahmed Mansoor and Nasser Bin Ghaith. Both men were sentenced to ten years in prison after being convicted under the UAE's draconian anti-terror laws in grossly unfair trials. Their crime was to call for democratic reforms in a state that is among the most repressive in the world; repressive even towards those of its own citizens who dare to question the authority of the regime. To the world, the United Arab Emirates — a collection of seven statelets, the most powerful of which are Abu Dhabi and Dubai — has been able to present the face of a tolerant and ultra-modern Gulf country welcoming foreign business and tourists with open arms.
The UK does brisk business with the UAE and hopes, post-Brexit, to do even more. Dubai has been particularly convivial towards British expats and holidaymakers with more than 1.2 million Brits visiting in 2019 alone. More than 200,000 were resident in the country last year. Now, thanks to coronavirus, many simply want to come home and the tourist trade has vanished.
Coming home. Home for Ahmed Mansoor, winner of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders in 2015, is a cell in Al Sadr Prison in Abu Dhabi that measures four square metres. In the three years that he has been held in solitary confinement he has been allowed out into the exercise yard just once. He has been denied a bed and his toilet is a hole in the floor. He is refused access to books and family visits and phone calls are routinely and capriciously denied. In September last year he went on a hunger strike in protest. Although he halted the strike after authorities allowed his family more access, his health is seriously compromised. Since January, human rights organisations have been unable to find out any more about either his situation or his medical condition.
Even less is known about the fate of Nasser Bin Ghaith, a distinguished Emirati economist. In November 2019 the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) detailed the three hunger strikes he has undertaken since his arrest in 2015 and subsequent conviction. He has been subjected to beatings, solitary confinement, the withdrawal of family visitation rights and the denial of medical treatment. He is being held in Abu Dhabi's Al-Razeem maximum security prison.
How perversely, how savagely, ironic therefore that the UAE celebrated 2019 as the Year of Tolerance while Alia Abdulnoor lay dying chained to a hospital bed; Ahmed Mansoor was being held in solitary confinement in medieval conditions; and Nasser Bin Ghaith was left in a similarly appalling state. Dozens more political prisoners, many of them members of a banned religious society, Al-Islah, are in jail, convicted solely on the basis of confessions obtained under torture. The ICJHR has highlighted, too, the abusive treatment of two women prisoners of conscience: Maryam Al-Balloushi and Amina Al-Abdouli are both held in Al-Wathba Prison.
Perhaps the "Year of Tolerance" was really just an opportunity for the UAE authorities to celebrate the tolerance of their friends in the West who turn a collective blind eye to the human rights abuses committed with impunity. Perhaps they were expressing their appreciation that the cloak of silence that enables them is only very rarely lifted, as in the awful case of the British academic Matthew Hedges who was sentenced to life in prison on bogus spying charges after months held in solitary. He was released and allowed to go home. Thank God for that.
Alia Abdulnoor died one year ago today, on 4 May 2019. She was a woman whose impulse was to act compassionately toward women and children, victims of the Syrian war. As we celebrate other acts of kindness, courage and selflessness during this war against the coronavirus pandemic, let us also remember her. She does not deserve to be forgotten.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.