(Beirut) – The decision of a United Arab Emirates (UAE) court to sentence a Jordanian resident of the UAE to 10 years in prison in October 2020 was based entirely on peaceful Facebook posts criticizing Jordan’s government, Human Rights Watch said today.
The court convicted him of using Facebook to commit “acts against a foreign state” that could “damage political relations” with that state and “endanger national security” inside the UAE, based solely on his peaceful criticism of the Jordanian royal family and government.
“UAE authorities have long clamped down on public criticism of UAE authorities and policies and have apparently extended this repression to critics of other countries as well,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Regional cooperation to root out and silence independent voices and criticism seems to be the only meaningful Arab unity these governments are capable of.”
Before his arrest in May 2020, Ahmed Etoum, 46, lived in the UAE with his family for about five years. Both he and his wife worked as teachers in Abu Dhabi. Etoum frequently used his Facebook profile, where he has just over 4,000 followers, to voice political opinions, often criticizing Jordan’s royal family, its intelligence agency, its government, and government policies. Human Rights Watch reviewed the Facebook posts referred to in the court ruling as evidence against Etoum, all of them nonviolent political commentary.
One of Etoum’s family members told Human Rights Watch that UAE security forces arrested Etoum on May 14, 2020 as he walked back from the neighborhood supermarket with his two children, ages 9 and 4. The family member said that a masked man abducted Etoum and forced him into a car, leaving the children to walk home unattended.
Family members in Jordan said that security forces only allowed Etoum to contact his family three weeks later and held him for at least four months in solitary confinement in an unrevealed place. He is currently in al-Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi, they said. Family members said the court only provided a lawyer after his first hearing, on August 12, 2020. Neither his family members nor his lawyer have been permitted to visit him, they said.
On October 8, 2020, the State Security Circuit at the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals convicted Etoum on the following charges, based on both the penal code and the 2012 combatting cybercrimes law:
- Deliberately [carrying out] an act against a foreign country (Jordan) that could damage political relations between the UAE and Jordan, by publishing on Facebook news and information that contain insults and ridicule toward Jordan, its king, and its government.
- [Publishing] information on Facebook that promotes ideas that can incite and stir discord and disturb public order and social peace.
- [Using] Facebook to publish information that endangers the security of the state and its supreme interests and harm public order.
The court sentenced Etoum to 10 years in prison followed by deportation, the confiscation of his devices used “in the crime,” the deletion of incriminating posts, and the shutdown of his social media accounts. The court based the sentence on article 166 of the UAE penal code, which criminalizes “taking action against a foreign country that can harm political relations or expose the country’s citizens, employees, funds, or interests to acts of reprisal,” and carries a life sentence. The court said it had reduced the sentence to 10 years on account of “mercy.” Article 201 of the penal code gives the court the authority to reduce a life sentence, but to no less than 10 years.
The court based the charges on statements by two UAE state security agents, Etoum’s confession, and his activity on Facebook including posts deemed to “incite discord among Jordanian residents in the UAE along the lines of supporters and opponents of the Jordanian government, which can threaten social peace within the country.” It also cited joining Facebook groups consisting of opponents of the Jordanian government abroad and posting comments ridiculing certain government decisions, reposting on his page government-issued news alongside comments claiming government corruption, and re-sharing online appeals by Jordanian citizens requesting social aid from the government.
One of the state security agents’ witness statements said that Etoum also used his Facebook account to raise awareness about Jordanian authorities’ restrictions on free expression by publishing posts “in defense of those arrested by [Jordan’s] security forces.” In his confession, Etoum stated that before he left Jordan in 2014, security forces had regularly targeted and harassed him, but does not say why.
The court ruling referred to six Arabic-language Facebook posts by Etoum in 2019. In two of the posts, according to the court ruling, Etoum referred to corruption at the monarchy’s level; in another, he referred to restrictions on free expression and the absence of the rule of law. In two others he commented on the state of poverty in Jordan, and in one post, the ruling claimed he hinted that Jordanian authorities arrest those who report corruption.
Despite the court order, Etoum’s Facebook profile remains active, and the posts are still available.
UAE authorities have long used broadly worded laws to limit lawful speech in violation of international standards. They have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association since 2011. UAE residents who have spoken about human rights issues are at serious risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and torture. Many are serving long prison terms or have left the country under pressure.
In 2017, the UAE authorities sentenced a Jordanian journalist who was then living in the country, Tayseer al-Najjar, to three years in prison related to his online criticism of Israeli and Egyptian military actions in and near the Gaza Strip. The authorities released al-Najjar in February 2019, two months after he completed his sentence.
In August 2020, Jordanian authorities arrested a prominent cartoonist, Emad Hajjaj, for publishing a satirical cartoon about the Israeli-United Arab Emirates diplomatic agreement. Following a public outcry, the authorities released him on August 30, 2020.
“The UAE markets itself as a country of tolerance, but that tolerance does not extend to criticism of regional governments, which is aggressively suppressed,” Page said.
Unofficial translation of three of Etoum’s Facebook posts referred to in the court ruling
- “The [Jordanian] king admits that the homeland is his responsibility and that all talk should be directed at him alone, and all that we are experiencing in terms of poverty, humiliation, imprisonment, and lack of freedom of expression is due to the king’s failures, may God guide him.” Ahmed Etoum, November 11, 2019
- “With prayers to the Prophet, you shall know that there is no such thing as Jordan in this matter … the governments are in the service of Abu al-Hussein [the King] and his family, I think that now the Ministry of Transport and Foreign Affairs (sic) that was previously run by Prince Hassan’s relatives [the King’s uncle], its ownership has now been transferred to Queen Rania’s relatives, and this means new projects for the Queen in this domain and global marketing.” Ahmed Etoum, November 13, 2019
- “Are these [poverty] statistics for our neighborhood only, or all of Jordan?” Ahmed Etoum, November 16, 2019