It’s a familiar story. A hundred years ago British suffragettes Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurt went to jail for advocating women’s right to vote. Dominican sisters Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal were imprisoned and eventually assassinated (along with another sister Patricia) in 1960 for their opposition to the violent Trujillo dictatorship. In the last few years Al Khawaja sisters Zainab and Maryam have been jailed in Bahrain for their peaceful opposition to the repressive government, and Iranian sisters Leila and Sara Tavassoli were sent to prison by the Tehran regime for the expression of their views.
This February in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the al Suwaidi sisters–Asma, Mariam, and Alaziyah–disappeared while in custody after being summoned to a police station in Abu Dhabi. They had Tweeted about the detention of their brother, Dr. Issa al Suwaidi, former head of the UAE’s Red Crescent Society and one of the UAE’s many political prisoners. They were released three months later.
Just a few days ago came news that two more sisters in the UAE were arrested. They are now held by the feared State Security Apparatus (the UAE’s Stasi), where there have been credible reports of torture. Local reports suggest Amina and Moza Alabdouli were taken to an unknown place by police on November 19 after their house was raided. There are fears about what will happen in custody to the sisters, and to their brother Mosab, who was taken with them. Their arrest occurs just days before International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, chosen to commemorate the November 25, 1960 assassination of the Mirabal sisters.
It’s unclear why they were taken, although some reports suggest that their late father was a political prisoner a decade ago; retribution by UAE’s State Security against family members of political opponents is far from rare. I visited the UAE earlier this year, where the family of political prisoners told me that they have been subject to arbitrary travel bans that prevent them from leaving the country. Others find that digital government files holding their I.D. and other information have been tampered with, making it impossible for them to get drivers licenses. Some even report being followed and intimidated, and their children prevented from attending universities.
The UAE is a key U.S. military ally – Secretary of State John Kerry was there this week, meeting Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who runs the State Security apparatus. The prince is a Washington favorite. He was here in Washington D.C. earlier this year to meet with President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of Defense Carter and, he said, to develop “new steps to enhance the already deep security between the U.S. and the UAE.”
He represented the UAE at the summit of Gulf leaders hosted by President Obama at Camp David in May this year, where the discussion centered not on human rights but on how Washington will provide greater military assistance to the UAE and its other repressive Gulf allies. Reports from UAE suggest that a couple of weeks ago loudspeakers were installed in each block of the notorious Alrazeen prison, where many political dissidents and human rights activists are held, and that songs are now blared at the prisoners praising the Crown Prince.
Washington’s military and political support for him and for the UAE government enables the Gulf monarchy’s repression. U.S. government officials should use tomorrow’s anniversary to speak out publicly against the attack on the Alabdouli sisters in the UAE, and to publicly condemn torture by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s State Security Apparatus.