United Arab Emirates authorities have forcibly disappeared at least four Pakistani men since October 2020 and deported at least six others without explanation, apparently based solely on their religious background, Human Rights Watch said today. UAE authorities released and immediately deported the six in October and November 2020 after also subjecting them to enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention for between three weeks and five months.
All 10 men are Shia Muslim residents of the UAE and most have lived and worked in the country for many years as managers, sales staff, CEOs of small businesses, as well as laborers and drivers. One man had lived and worked there for over 40 years; another had been born and raised in the UAE. The authorities did not bring charges against any of the six men released from detention, yet summarily deported them without giving them any opportunity to challenge their deportations.
“UAE state security forces have a long record of enforced disappearances with total impunity, leaving detainees and their family members frightened, confused, and hopeless.” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The behavior of unaccountable UAE authorities is an open mockery of the rule of law and leaves no one safe from serious abuses.”
This is not the first time UAE authorities have apparently arbitrarily targeted Shia residents, including through arbitrary detention and groundless deportations. Reports of UAE authorities’ arbitrarily targeting Shia residents, whether Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani or otherwise, often emerge at times of increased regional tensions.
An enforced disappearance occurs when state agents, or people or groups acting with government authorization or support, deprive a person of liberty and then refuse to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or conceal the person’s situation or whereabouts.
Human Rights Watch spoke to family members of all 10 men, whom UAE authorities arrested between September and November 2020, as well as one of the men released in late 2020. Each of the family members said that they know about other Pakistani Shia Muslims picked up by UAE state security forces since mid-September, which suggests that the number of those arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared may be greater than four.
The authorities have allowed only one of the four men who remain in detention to call his family, and only after six months of keeping them “in complete darkness,” said his son, who spoke to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity. The man’s family still does not know where the authorities are holding him nor why he was detained.
Human Rights Watch also viewed a document compiled by family members of detainees listing 27 Pakistani citizens from the town of Parachinar, in northern Pakistan, who were arrested in the UAE in September or October. A member of the Pakistani parliament said that he believes the list is accurate and that he personally met with each of the families.
The family members said that they learned about the forcible disappearance of their loved ones in various ways. Armed state security agents dressed in black military attire arrested two of the men at their homes in midnight raids with their family members present. One man was arrested at his office, and co-workers who were present later told his family members that Emirati men came and took him away without explanation.
Family members of another man said his friends in the apartment building where he lived informed them that while they were sitting together in their residential car park, as they do most evenings, four men arrived and arrested him without explanation. Three of the men received phone calls to report to various police stations across the UAE, after which family members said they lost all contact with them. And three of the men simply were missing, two of whom remain missing but are presumed to be in detention.
“My question is simple,” a relative of one of the men who remains forcibly disappeared said soon after the man became unreachable in October. “If they have been arrested, I just want to know what the crime is. If there is a case against them, then we can think about how to fight the case. But if we don’t know what the charges are, how can we prove that our sons are innocent?”
In several cases, relatives said that the men detained did not have their passports with them, and that security forces later raided their homes in search of them. In some cases, the authorities took other immigration-related and work documents. Most of the men’s relatives said that they tried to inquire about them at various police stations, prisons, and deportation centers, but that officials would not even acknowledge the relative’s arrest, let alone tell them where and why they had been detained.
Two relatives said they tried to lodge complaints at police stations near their homes but that the police refused, telling them to simply wait for a call. “Who is supposed to call us?” one relative said. “We don’t know.” Several relatives said that they approached the Pakistani embassy in the UAE, whose representatives said they had no information about their missing relatives.
Human Rights Watch spoke to one young former detainee following his deportation. He had been missing since late November after being summoned to a police station in Dubai just after midnight. The authorities released him more than three weeks later, and immediately deported him. UAE security forces denied him contact with family members and access to legal counsel and consular representation for the duration of his detention.
He said they ill-treated him, including handcuffing and blindfolding him while transporting him from one location to another, conducting 5- and 10-hour interrogation sessions, and denying him sleep and warm clothes for 2 days as he remained alone in a cold room with the lights on at all times.
Family members of other Pakistani Shia residents who have since been released also reported that their relatives were never charged, did not receive legal counsel or consular representation, and were deported straight out of detention without the opportunity to settle their affairs after living in the UAE for many years. While family members say they still do not know the basis of their relatives’ detention and deportation, they believe it is because of sectarian discrimination.
Pakistani authorities should investigate the arbitrary targeting of Pakistani Shia Muslim citizens in the UAE, demand the disclosure of their missing citizens’ whereabouts and basis of arrests, and demand immediate access to consular representation, Human Rights Watch said. The UAE authorities should reveal the names, whereabouts, and basis of arrest of everyone they have forcibly disappeared or are holding in incommunicado detention.
“The UAE claims that it respects religious freedom and diversity,” Page said.” But arbitrarily disappearing and deporting long-time Shia residents indicates that this tolerance and respect does not extend to all religious sects.”
Between 2009 and 2016, Human Rights Watch, as well as Deutsche Welle and several other international and regional media outlets, reported on the indiscriminate deportations of hundreds of Lebanese Shia from the UAE without due process or any opportunity to challenge their deportations. In some cases, Emirati authorities refused to give any justification for the expulsions and in others, reportedly accused deportees of links to Hezbollah and Iran.
In 2019, Human Rights Watch reported on Emirati authorities detaining eight Lebanese nationals for more than a year without charge in an unrevealed location, ill-treating them, and denying them their due process rights. The Lebanese nationals were Shia Muslims and had been living in the UAE for over a decade. On May 15, 2019, following a grossly unfair trial, a UAE court sentenced 1 to life in prison, 2 to 10-year sentences, and acquitted and deported 5.
Article 47 of the UAE’s criminal law of procedure states that detainees should be taken before the public prosecutor within 2 days. The UAE’s 2003 State Security Apparatus Law, however, gives state security officers wide powers to hold detainees for lengthy periods without any judicial scrutiny.
Article 28 of the state security apparatus law, read in conjunction with article 14, allows the head of the state security apparatus to detain a person for 106 days “if he has sufficient reasonable causes to make him believe” that the person is involved in, among other things, “activities that undermine the state … or jeopardize national unity,” “activities deemed harmful to the economy,” or anything that “could undermine, weaken the position of, stir animosity against or undermine trust in the State.”
The state security apparatus law inherently violates article 14(5) of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which states that “anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release.” The UAE signed the Arab Charter in 2006.
The law also places people at heightened risk of enforced disappearance.
The nexus between torture and enforced disappearance is well established in international law. Article 5 of the 2006 International Convention on the Protection of All Persons Against Enforced Disappearances states that: “The widespread or systematic practice of enforced disappearance constitutes a crime against humanity as defined in applicable international law and shall attract the consequences provided for under such applicable international law.” The UAE has yet to sign or ratify the convention.
One Former Detainee’s Experience in UAE Detention
In April 2021, Human Rights Watch spoke to one Pakistani Shia man who spent nearly a month in UAE detention and was released and deported in late December 2020.
“No one knew where I was for 21 days,” he said. His ordeal began one night in late November when he received a call from an unknown number and was told to report to a police station without explanation. Upon arrival, police officers escorted him outside, where a black car was waiting. An Emirati man dressed in all black handcuffed and blindfolded him and told him to get into the car, he said. They rode for about 15 minutes and he was then led into what he realized was a prison cell. “For someone who was in a cell for the first time, it was hard hitting,” he said. “I was in extreme shock.”
The next morning, he said, he was again blindfolded, handcuffed, and led to another car and rode for about an hour to what he later found out was the Criminal Investigations Department in Abu Dhabi. “I had no idea what on earth was going on, I was clueless,” he said. “I had heard about things that were happening about a month earlier, about Shia getting picked up. It was all since the UAE-Israel deal. But no one told me anything.”
Emirati agents then took him to a place that looked like an office space with many meeting rooms, he said: “For two whole days I was in one of those meeting rooms. I tried to sleep on the chair. There was a sofa bed but I wasn’t allowed to use it. At times, out of pure tiredness I tried to sleep on the floor and used my shoes as pillows. If they saw me falling asleep, they would tell me to get up. There were no windows, nothing, the light in the room was constantly on, the only way to tell time was when the food arrived. The room was also cold and I wasn’t given anything [to keep warm].”
He said he was then taken to a large hall in the same building with 15 to 16 bunk beds and where other detainees were held. He said the number of detainees varied throughout his stay, reaching over 40 at one point. “I still had no idea why I was there, who the others were, or how long they had been there,” he said. “The guards had one rule: Stay quiet, don’t talk to anyone or look at anyone.”
After 10 days, state security agents called him in for questioning, which he said lasted about 10 hours: “The interrogator asked me about my life, every single detail, my work, family, friends, education, travel, relatives. My phone was in his hand and he would go through it, WhatsApp groups, photos, and ask me questions. He asked me if I was Shia or Sunni.” Two days later, another interrogator questioned him for another five hours, this time, he said, focusing on his travels. He said the interrogator made him sign a statement in Arabic promising not to speak about his detention to anyone or face prosecution.
“On day 12, people were beginning to leave, the hall was getting emptier,” he said. “On day 14, a big chunk of people left the hall. Before anyone was released, they would do a second Covid- test, that’s how we knew they were being released.”
After he spent 21 days in detention with no access to family, legal counsel, or consular representatives and without being presented before a public prosecutor or formally charged, UAE state security forces told him that they would release him. “I hoped I was going to be sent back home,” he said. “There was no cleaner profile than mine, I had never stepped into a police station for any wrongdoing. I thought I would be going home until the very end.”
Instead, state security forces cuffed his feet together and took him straight to a deportation center. A couple of days later he was able to call his family for the first time since his arrest, he said. “And it was only to tell [family member] to bring money, my passport, and my clothes because I was being sent to Pakistan, I had no chance to get anything at all in order, and my wife, who was under my sponsorship, had just one month to leave.”