Ten Years But Still Counting – UAE Fails To Release Jailed Activist Al-Roken
You’d think if you got a ten-year jail sentence you’d be released after ten years. Not in the bizarro world of the repressive United Arab Emirates. The Emirates is one of the United States’ most violent and repressive military allies, responsible for a disastrous war against Yemen and for crushing all peaceful internal dissent.
By Brian Dooley and Quinn Fulton
You’d think if you got a ten-year jail sentence you’d be released after ten years.
Not in the bizarro world of the repressive United Arab Emirates. The Emirates is one of the United States’ most violent and repressive military allies, responsible for a disastrous war against Yemen and for crushing all peaceful internal dissent.
Prominent Emirati human rights defender and lawyer Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken finished his ten-year sentence on July 17, but still hasn’t been released from jail.
Al-Roken practiced peaceful activism, looking for minimal reforms towards democracy and standing up for human rights. He and other peaceful activists, including Ahmed Mansoor and Nasser bin Ghaith, were given long sentences after unfair trials.
Human Rights First has covered their cases and others for many years, and urged a succession of U.S. administrations to use the influence they have accrued – not least through supplying the Emirates with billions of dollars of weapons – to push for the release of jailed human rights activists there.
The U.S. government knows exactly who Al-Roken is and what he stands for. He has been featured in a succession of U.S. reports describing him as “a human rights activist” (2007), “a lawyer…reportedly held incommunicado and without charge for unknown reasons” (2012), and a “lawyer, academic and human rights defender” (2021).
In 2015, Human Rights First wrote about his wrongful imprisonment, and noted in a report that year on human rights in the Emirates that “Former heads of the Jurists Association are now political prisoners, including renowned constitutional scholar Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken. He is one of dozens serving long prison sentences after being convicted in mass trials.”
We have continued to raise cases through the media of human rights defenders wrongfully detained in the Emirates, and we successfully campaigned for the release of American citizens Mohammed and Kamal Al Darat when they were tortured and detained in the Emirates for over a year.
We are not alone in recognizing Al-Roken’s human rights work and wrongful imprisonment. Major international human rights organizations have campaigned for him for years, and in 2017 he was awarded the prestigious Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize.
When calling for Al-Roken’s release, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders noted that he was jailed on charges of “plotting against the government,” and “subjected to intermittent periods in solitary confinement, allegedly without justification or explanation.” The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Al-Roken “is reportedly well known for defending victims of human rights violations in the United Arab Emirates,” and deemed his detention as arbitrary.
We know that getting people who have been wrongfully detained in the Emirates out of prison is difficult, but it sometimes can be done if there is substantial international public pressure – as with the Al Darats and the British academic Matthew Hedges.
That’s why it’s important that the Biden administration speaks out publicly about Al-Roken. Our years of advocacy experience tells us that behind-the-scenes diplomacy is unlikely to work.
Following President Biden’s disastrous trip to the region this month, the administration has a massive credibility gap with human rights activists in the Middle East.
That won’t be repaired overnight, but publicly calling for Al-Roken’s release, and for the release of other human rights defenders in prison in the UAE, would be a start.
Quinn Fulton is a Juris Doctor student at the Georgetown University Law Center.