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Ahmed Mansoor: The UAE's Conscience

The renowned Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor has been beaten, banned from traveling, and assaulted. He has resisted highly sophisticated hacking attempts. On 29 May 2018, Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison. His appeal was rejected on 31 December 2018.

Political activist Ahmed Mansoor speaks to Reuters in Dubai, UAE, on 30 November 2011, REUTERS/Nikhil Monteiro

"The only way to counter repression is by revealing it."

Mansoor in an interview for The Independent in October 2015, after being awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders

Ahmed Mansoor is one of the Gulf's most well-known human rights defenders. In 2015, he was selected by a jury of ten global human rights organisations to receive the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, which described him as "one of the few voices within the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who provides a credible independent assessment of human rights developments in the country."

In the early hours of 20 March 2017, Mansoor was arrested after a dozen Emirati security officers stormed his home in Ajman, one of the emirates of the UAE. For over a year after that, his whereabouts were unknown and he was banned from making calls to his family. His wife was allowed to visit him only twice, briefly and under strict supervision, on 3 April and 17 September 2017.

On 12 April 2018 it was finally revealed that Mansoor had been taken to court. To the surprise of many, his trial had already started, in March of 2018. Mansoor, whose photo on Twitter is of another Emirati activist also under arrest, Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, is being accused by UAE authorities of using social media websites to "publish false information that harms national unity."

Shortly after his arrest, UN rights experts declared that they "regard Mr. Mansoor's arrest and detention as a direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE," adding that "Mr. Mansoor's outstanding work in the protection of human rights and the advancement of democracy, as well as his transparent collaboration with UN mechanisms, is of great value not only for the UAE but for the whole region".

Active since 2006, Mansoor came under the spotlight for successfully campaigning in 2006-2007 in support of two people jailed for social comments; people who were then released and their charges dropped. This was even followed by the Prime Minister of UAE issuing an order "not to jail journalists in relation to their work".

In 2009, Mansoor led an effort to oppose a draft media law under consideration by the UAE government that was widely viewed as a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of information. He launched a petition urging the president not to approve the draft law, which was subsequently suspended.

Mansoor also ran the site (Hewar, حوار, being the Arabic for "dialogue"), which was repeatedly censored by the authorities. During one of these censorship periods, in February 2010, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that "some of the contributors to the site think the authorities are blocking it in order to discover the identity of the site's owners, who call themselves 'Emirati intellectuals'". As it happens, Mansoor was one of these intellectuals, although he wasn't the owner of the site.

Inspired by the Arab Spring, five intellectuals, including Mansoor, launched a petition on 3 March 2011 calling for democratic reforms in the UAE. This led to their arrest three months later, in June 2011. In what became known as the UAE5 Case (The UAE Five), they were accused by the government of "publicly insulting the UAE leadership". They were sentenced to three years in prison but released during a presidential amnesty in November 2011, after having spent nearly eight months in jail. The four other arrested activists were Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith, the Emirati economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Paris-Sorbonne University, and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq.

It is also believed that international outrage and pressure contributed to their release. Their case was widely reported in the international press and by Amnesty International, which coined the term "The UAE Five", labelling them prisoners of conscience. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Front Line Defenders, Index on Censorship and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) also called for the men's release, and more than 70 comedians signed a petition launched by Amnesty International during the 2011 Edinburgh Festival. Due to his status as an academic, Dr. bin Ghaith's arrest was also protested by Scholars at Risk and the Committee of Concerned Scientists.

Mansoor was also repeatedly a hacking target of the government. In 2011, he was attacked "with a sophisticated piece of spyware designed to siphon off all kinds of data from his computer". In 2016, Mansoor made the headlines again for something that was out of his control. He received a suspicious text on his iPhone promising details of torture in the country's state prisons. Mansoor, by then suspicious enough not to click, sent the message to Citizen Lab researchers who reported that they "recognized the links as belonging to an exploit infrastructure connected to NSO Group, an Israel-based "cyber war" company that sells Pegasus, a government-exclusive "lawful intercept" spyware product." The subsequent scandal exposing vulnerabilities in iOS led to Apple updating its system.

As mentioned, was repeatedly censored by the authorities. On 14 March 2010, Abdul Hamid Alkamiti, an Emirati lawyer and human rights activist, filed a complaint "to the prosecutor general in Dubai against the Telecomm Regulatory Authority, demanding the disclosure of reasons behind the censorship action." The website has since been suspended.

Mansoor also wrote about the plight of stateless persons, known in the region as bidoon (literally, "without", as in "without nationality"). In fact, one of the UAE5, Ahmed Abul Khaleq, was classified as a bidoon and thus had no UAE citizenship when arrested. On 21 May 2012, he was granted a Comoros passport and was arrested by UAE authorities again the next day. Forced to choose between permanent expulsion and indefinite detention, Khaleq left for Thailand. The day of his departure, 16 July 2012, the UAE revoked his right of residence, thus preventing his return to the country.

Deporting dissidents and activists is not unusual in the UAE, with another notable activist, Iyad El-Baghdadi, a stateless Palestinian activist residing in the UAE, deported after being faced with the same choice as Abdul Khaleq. El-Baghdadi made his way to Malaysia and ended up in Norway, where he applied for asylum.

In 2016, Le Monde met with a tired Mansoor who described the various methods of harassment being used against him. They included a travel ban, surveillance, sums of money mysteriously disappearing from his bank accounts, online death threats and even beatings by 'strangers'.

On 29 May 2018, Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison. His appeal was rejected on 31 December 2018.

Mansoor is also a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division and is on GCHR's Advisory Board. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Master of Science in Telecommunications from the University of Colorado Boulder in the United States.


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