Next week will mark a year since U.S. ally United Arab Emirates (UAE) arrested two U.S. citizens - Kamal Ahmed al Darat, age 58, and his son, Mohammed Kamal al Darat, who is 33. Neither have been charged or tried, and both have been swallowed into the UAE's feared State Security Apparatus - widely regarded as the UAE Stasi - which is headed by senior government leader and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyanand. Its power has grown over the last ten years and now it effectively controls the government, penetrating every ministry.
As Human Rights First detailed in May, the State Security Apparatus is part of the UAE government's elaborate structure of repression, silencing virtually all dissent. Its notorious prisons house prominent scholars and lawyers who dared to ask for reform. Only yesterday, prominent academic and economist Dr. Naser bin Ghaith was arrested and is being held at an unknown location.
Local human rights activists told Human Rights First they estimate over 200 people are in jails in the UAE for political reasons. The UAE has a long record of torture and mistreatment of its political prisoners. Detainees describe been severely beaten and threatened with electrocution. Few civil society representatives remain in the country and out of jail.
The al Darats also appear to have been targeted because they are Libyan as well as American, but as there has been no day in court it's hard to know exactly what they're suspected of. Both are businessmen who lived and worked in California starting in the mid-1980s but spent much of their time in the UAE, where their business ventures included real estate and managing Subway restaurants. The State Security Apparatus came for Kamal first, on Tuesday August 26. Two days later they took his son, Mohammed. Their family heard nothing from them until November, when Kamal called briefly to say he didn't know where Mohammed was being held. Then the following month another call, when Kamal said he was now with Mohammed at the State Security prison. There was a brief family visit to prison in February.
Even by standards of the Gulf, the UAE is brutally repressive. No political parties are allowed and the authorities have tried to suffocate the country's civil society in recent years, jailing dozens of dissidents after unfair trials, throwing out international think tanks, and disbanding local organizations. Even when cases like that of the al Darats get to trial it's difficult to find defense lawyers who to represent them, because so many attorneys are intimidated from doing this sort of work.
The widespread protests of early 2011 across the region represented an existential challenge to the authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other GCC states who opposed popular demands for more representative government, demands that threatened these countries' authoritarian systems of absolute monarchy.
Like many prisoners taken into UAE custody, little is known about what's happening to the al Darats. Sources from inside the prison say that Kamal is in pain and is denied the medical treatment he needs. They report that in April of this year his hands and feet were shackled when he was taken to hospital for an MRI, only to be told that the facilities were fully booked and he couldn't be scanned.
Sources close to the case say his family has not been allowed to visit during the summer, and that he has been denied access to phone calls to them since May.
Although the State Department's latest country report on the UAE recognizes that "The three most significant human rights problems were citizens' inability to change their government; limitations on citizens' civil liberties (including the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and internet use); and arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and lengthy pretrial detentions," Washington's criticism of its military ally has been generally muted.
It's time the US government spoke out about the US citizens in prison in the UAE, and for the many others wrongly detained there. It's been a long year for the al Darats, a horrifying ordeal. It's time it ended.