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HRW: Free Speech Under Attack In UAE

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said that the United Arab Emirates during 2011 muzzled the right of its citizens to express themselves and to form independent associations.

UAE authorities harassed, arrested, and jailed activists, and disbanded the elected boards of two of the country's most prominent civil society organizations, the New York-based human rights watchdog said in its World Report 2012, released at a news conference in Dubai on Wednesday.

"In the year of the Arab Spring, the UAE headed in the opposite direction by criminally prosecuting Emiratis who dared to criticize the government," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East Director.

In the 676-page World Report 2012, HRW assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the "Arab Spring," the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, HRW said in the report.

In the UAE, in early April authorities arrested five activists, known as the "UAE 5," after they allegedly posted statements on the Internet forum UAE Hewar, which authorities have banned. None of the messages on UAE Hewar that have been attributed to the UAE 5 went beyond peaceful criticism of government policy or political leaders, said HRW and other rights groups that reviewed the posts.

"To protect the right of Emiratis to express themselves, authorities need to expunge from the penal code provisions that imprison people for insulting government officials," Whitson said.

UAE authorities further clamped down on freedom of expression by disbanding the elected boards of the Jurists Association and the Teachers' Association after they and two other nongovernmental organizations co-signed a public appeal in April calling for greater democracy in the country.

Al-Islah, an Islamist group, issued a statement in December saying the authorities had confiscated the citizenship documents of seven of its members, some of whom had signed a petition in March seeking political reforms. UAE authorities later acknowledged that a presidential order had stripped six of the men of their citizenship for "acts posing a threat to the State's security and safety." The authorities have not publicly commented on the seventh case.

Migrant workers in the UAE experienced some improvements in their conditions, particularly on Saadiyat Island, the site of a major development and construction project. The government issued new labor regulations in January to protect workers from unscrupulous recruiters who charge them illegal fees and have them sign false contracts.

Many foreign women employed as domestic workers in the UAE suffer from unpaid wages, food deprivation, long working hours, forced confinement, and physical or sexual abuse, says the report.

In June, the UAE voted to adopt the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The convention requires the UAE government to provide domestic workers with labor protections equivalent to those of other workers, including those regulating working hours and overtime compensation. The new standards also oblige the UAE government to protect domestic workers from violence and abuse, and to ensure effective monitoring and enforcement.

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