A British national imprisoned two years ago in the United Arab Emirates is facing new charges relating to tweets about his former employers’ with whom he is in a business dispute.
David Haigh, a former managing director of Leeds United Football Club who was due to be released on the earlier fraud charges on November 16, 2015, now faces charges under the UAE’s repressive cybercrime law. A Dubai court has postponed hearings in his case six times since then while he remains in pre-trial detention. The UAE authorities should immediately drop the charges of slander, release him, and scrap the law that criminalizes slander.
“If UAE businessmen can have their partners locked up when they don’t like the tone of their tweets, one has to question whether the UAE is a safe place to make any form of criticism,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “The UK government should make very public calls for David Haigh’s immediate release and scrapping of the criminal slander law.”
On November 14, authorities charged Haigh, with slander on the basis of comments made eight months earlier on his Twitter account about his former employers with whom he is in a legal dispute. Haigh’s UK-based lawyer, Alun Jones, told Human Rights Watch that he has concerns about his client’s physical and mental well-being.
Slander should not constitute a criminal offense, Human Rights Watch said. Jones said that Haigh got into a dispute with his Dubai-based employers, GFH Capital, in March 2014, and had notified them that he intended to bring legal proceedings against them for what he claimed were outstanding commissions. In May 2014, police arrested him in his former employer’s office after he flew to Dubai to attend a meeting there.
In August 2015, a Dubai court convicted him of fraud and sentenced him to two years in prison. Jones was not Haigh’s lawyer at his trial in the UAE, but said that Haigh was not able to see the evidence against him, which was in Arabic, which he does not read or understand, and that he was not able to give evidence or cross-examine witnesses. On November 14, 2015, two days before he was to be released, the authorities informed Haigh that GFH Capital had alleged that he had slandered them in comments on his Twitter account in March 2015. A representative of Haigh told Human Rights Watch that a third-party was managing Haigh’s account at the time, since Haigh was in prison with no access to social media. On March 3, a judge adjourned the trial for a sixth time until March 21.
Jones submitted a witness statement to law enforcement authorities in the UK in which Haigh described feeling “frightened and intimidated” at a meeting with Jones in Bur Dubai police station on March 17, 2015. A June 2015 Freedom of Information request from UK solicitors into abuse in police custody in the UAE said that between June 2010 and June 2015, 43 British nationals had complained to UK officials of torture or mistreatment in the UAE.
Article 20 of UAE Federal Law No. 5 of 2012 on Combating Cybercrime makes it a criminal offense to make slanderous comments online, and provides for either an unspecified period of imprisonment, a fine of between 250,000 and 500,000 Emirati dirhams ($68,000 and $136,000), or both. The cybercrime law and Haigh’s pre-trial detention are both at odds with international human rights law.
The UAE has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 19 of which outlines the right to freedom of opinion and expression. But it is a state party to the Arab Charter on Human Rights, article 32 of which ensures the right to information, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression. The UN Human Rights Committee issued an authoritative interpretation on the scope of the right to freedom of expression and opinion in its General Comment 34. It stated that:
States parties should consider the decriminalization of defamation and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty. It is impermissible for a State party to indict a person for criminal defamation but then not to proceed to trial expeditiously – such a practice has a chilling effect that may unduly restrict the exercise of freedom of expression of the person concerned and others.
The ICCPR’s article 9 requires that detention should be the exception, not the rule, for ensuring that a person facing charges will be available for trial.
In May 2015, the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers expressed concern that “the [UAE’s] judicial system remains under the de facto control of the executive branch of government.”
“Defamation laws exist to protect people from attacks on their reputation, but the UAE’s law on internet slander threatens its own reputation,” Stork said.