UAE widens crackdown on dissent
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The United Arab Emirates has broadened its crackdown on domestic opposition by launching a wave of arrests against Islamist activists in a sign of official nervousness about dissent and the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.
Activists said on Monday that at least six members of the Islamist Al-Islah (reform) group had been detained, while – in a separate case – another prominent activist, Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, was deported to Thailand.
The action against Islah comes after the official state news agency reported on Sunday that the government was investigating a foreign-linked organisation planning to commit “crimes against state security” and to “challenge the constitution and basic principles” of the country. The agency said the public prosecuting authority had ordered arrests pending an investigation, which would look into the “extent of the conspiracy this group was planning”.
Human Rights Watch, the US-based campaign group, has co-operated with Mohammed al-Mansoori, one of the arrested activists, and said the detentions were “clearly part of a disturbing pattern of attacks on reformers and government critics”.
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and north Africa division, added: “Today’s shocking deportation of [Mr] Abd al-Khaleq is a good indicator for the UAE’s tolerance for debate and dissent – zero.”
The UAE authorities regard Islah as little more than a proxy for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose growing influence amid the uprisings sweeping the Middle East was highlighted by the election last month of its candidate Mohamed Morsi as Egyptian president. Unlike some other Gulf states, the UAE does not tolerate domestic activity by the Brotherhood, which Dhahi Khalfan al-Tamim, Dubai’s outspoken police chief, has frequently accused of attempting to destabilise the region.
Islah’s members say the longstanding group shares common goals with the Muslim Brotherhood, but they deny any links to overseas groups.
Mr Abdul-Khaleq, an activist who campaigns on behalf of fellow stateless people known as “bidoun”, was deported to Thailand on a passport arranged by the UAE authorities from the tiny African state of the Comoros Islands, activists said. Mr Abd al-Khaleq, who had been detained by the government since May, was one of five online activists charged with insulting the leadership last year and sentenced to jail terms before being pardoned.
“Ahmed Abdul Khaleq should never have been forced to leave the country and this event sets alarm bells ringing regarding the fate of others held in the UAE in connection with alleged plots against state security,” said Ann Harrison, deputy Middle East and north Africa programme director at Amnesty International.
The UAE government declined to comment on Mr Abdul Khaleq’s case.
The oil-rich UAE has not witnessed street demonstrations like those seen elsewhere in the region, with a good number of nationals apparently satisfied with life under the country’s generous welfare system.
But increasing online criticism of some aspects of life in the country has unsettled the status quo, where tribal allegiances underpin a governing system characterised by public devotion to the ruling families of the seven emirates.
Some analysts say Islamism could undermine the rule of the sheikhs by appealing to concerns about nationals’ minority status within an economy based on migrant labour in which unemployment among young Emiratis has been rising. Domestic debate has also grown about social questions that go to heart of the UAE social model, notably in a campaign to crack down on expatriates deemed to be dressing immodestly.
Activists have also criticised the alleged concentration of wealth in Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the UAE, at the expense of poorer members of the federation.
The UAE authorities, led by the powerful internal security forces, have been quick to tackle any domestic dissent since pro-democracy revolts erupted in the Middle East.
Seven members of Islah who had their citizenship revoked last year were arrested earlier this year, after some of them refused to adopt alternative nationalities.
They are among about 10 people, including a senior Islah official who is a relative of the ruler of the small emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, who were detained before this latest wave of arrests.