A court in the United Arab Emirates sentenced an Omani man to life imprisonment in May this year based on a seriously unfair trial, the UK-based Human Rights Watch revealed today.
According to a member of Abdullah Al-Shaamsi’s family, he was arrested in 2018 when he was just 19 and attending high school in the UAE. The local security forces subjected him, it is alleged, to a sustained period of detention without communication, solitary confinement and torture, leaving him with kidney cancer and depression.
Following his disappearance on 18 August 2018, his family had no information about him until almost a month later when a group of men clad in military and civilian clothing brought him back to the family home in Al-Ain, east of Abu Dhabi. They searched the house and confiscated all electronic devices before taking him away again.
The authorities did not reveal his whereabouts to the family after that, and kept him in solitary confinement, which severely affected his mental health and forced him to be taken to a mental health facility for two weeks following a breakdown. It was also revealed that during the first three months of his interrogation, the state security forces tortured Al-Shaamsi with beatings and electric shocks. They also pulled out his fingernails. The family member who spoke to HRW said that signs of torture were visible on his body when family members were eventual allowed to visit him in February 2019 and March 2020.
Al-Shaamsi also revealed to his family during one phone call that his interrogators forced him to sign a false confession while blindfolded; this was used as “evidence” against him in court. On 6 May, he was finally sentenced to life in prison, despite the court being informed during a previous hearing that he had a mental health condition as well as other severe health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, as well as kidney cancer.
The family’s last visit to Al-Shaamsi was in March. Visits were then forbidden for all prisoners following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
On 31 May, the family was informed by the relatives of other prisoners that Al-Shaamsi and 30 others were transferred to isolation cells within Al-Wathba Prison. When they tried to visit him they were turned away and threatened with arrest. HRW was told, however, that an official from the Embassy of Oman said that on 3 June the UAE authorities had denied an outbreak of Covid-19 at the prison.
“Sentencing a man who has depression and cancer to life in prison using a tainted confession is a harrowing example of the unfair UAE justice system,” said HRW’s deputy Middle East director Michael Page. “The UAE authorities are refusing to provide information about Al-Shaamsi’s condition while holding him during the Covid-19 crisis in a prison known for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and lack of access to adequate health care.”
According to his family, Al-Shaamsi’s trial, which didn’t start until more than 18 months after his arrest, was blighted by violations of due process. The UAE authorities denied him access to a lawyer during their interrogations and forced a confession for use in the trial. After the Omani embassy appointed a lawyer for Al-Shaamsi, an appeal was submitted on 4 June.
The UAE authorities also denied him any access to his family for around six months, and they were barred from attending most of the court hearings. They were also told by Al-Shaamsi that throughout his detention he was not informed of any of the charges against him until a month before the trial.
In fact he was charged with “spying for Qatar”, and the court in the UAE reportedly used as evidence tweets which he denied writing and online competitions in which he participated when he was 17. According to reports, he won prizes of around AED 5,000 ($1,361) in the competitions hosted by Emirati and Qatari TV stations
HRW called on the UAE authorities to grant Al-Shaamsi the immediate medical care that he needs and to provide the family with regular information about his mental and physical health.
“The UAE authorities have compounded the suffering of Al-Shaamsi’s family by intentionally keeping them in the dark about his health amid reports of a Covid-19 outbreak in his prison,” added HRW’s Page.