Paris-Sorbonne University and its Emirati partner, Sorbonne Abu Dhabi University, should break their six-month silence and condemn the trial and imprisonment of the Sorbonne lecturer Nasser bin Ghaith, Human Rights Watch said today. Bin Ghaith, who has lectured at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi University since 2009, was teaching an intensive class the very week he was arrested, on April 9, 2011, according to interviews and documents obtained by Human Rights Watch.
Authorities have charged bin Ghaith and four other men with “publicly insulting” ruling officials in an internet forum. Bin Ghaith’s specific charge relates to an article that he allegedly wrote that mentions the Crown Prince. Despite mounting pressure from international rights groups and students at Paris Sorbonne University to speak up, Sorbonne has not only refused to criticize the UAE authorities but has also attempted to distance itself from bin Ghaith.
“The UAE’s case against Nasser bin Ghaith is an affront to one of Sorbonne’s core values – peaceful free expression,” said Jean-Marie Fardeau, France director at Human Rights Watch. “This is a very basic test of whether the Abu Dhabi Sorbonne intends to promote liberal educational values in the UAE or to ignore the repression of those values by its authoritarian patron.”
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, say the charges against bin Ghaith are baseless and politically motivated and have demanded that UAE authorities release the men immediately and unconditionally. Their trial has been marked by procedural flaws and has violated the most basic defense rights of the accused.
Although Paris-Sorbonne University and Sorbonne Abu Dhabi are legally independent entities, they maintain very close affiliations. By agreement, Sorbonne Abu Dhabi’s board is chaired by the president of Paris Sorbonne University.The French University receives 15 percent of the annual fees paid by Sorbonne Abu Dhabi students.
Sorbonne University has attempted to distance itself from bin Ghaith to justify its silence. On September 26, Paris-Sorbonne University’s President Georges Molinié issued a public statement saying that bin Ghaith’s prosecution was unrelated to his university lectures and that the university could not “comment on this individual case as an institution.”
On June 10, the Paris-Sorbonne board of directors voted down a motion by students’ groups that would have expressed the university’s support for freedom of speech, emphasizing that no one in the UAE or elsewhere should be jailed for expressing their opinion.
In April, in response to a Human Rights Watch letter demanding action, Paris Sorbonne distanced itself from bin Ghaith and tried to minimize his role, calling him an “external lecturer” and curtly suggesting that Human Rights Watch “turn to the UAE government” for more information. Sorbonne Abu Dhabi has not issued any public statement.
“Each and every Sorbonne faculty member should think long and hard about what it would mean if the UAE or any other government were persecuting him or her for expressing political views, as their university administration stood by and watched in silence,” Fardeau said. “Are the fees from Abu Dhabi worth a basic attack on freedom of expression?”
Bin Ghaith remains behind bars. The Supreme Court has on multiple occasions either denied or failed to rule on motions to release him and the other defendants on bail, even though none of them are charged with a violent offense and the authorities have not suggested that they pose a flight risk.
On the day of bin Ghaith’s arrest, state security forces confiscated computers, documents, and family videos during a four-hour search of his home in Dubai. Security forces shackled him in the back seat of a state security vehicle for 18 hours, refusing to let him go to the bathroom or perform his prayers.
Between April 10 and 12, bin Ghaith was scheduled to finish teaching his international economics law class at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi. Instead, he remained in solitary confinement in a dirty cell without access to either a lawyer or his family.
“Professor bin Ghaith is very well-respected by his students, and many of us are deeply concerned about what has happened to him,” a Sorbonne student who was enrolled in bin Ghaith’s class told Human Rights Watch on October 5. “We were all shocked when we heard about his arrest and the information that was being sent to us on BlackBerry and Facebook that tried to portray him as a traitor. It didn’t make any sense to us and was inconsistent with everything we knew about his character.”
According to bin Ghaith, prison authorities have encouraged other inmates at al-Wathba prison to harass him. After he had an altercation with another prisoner in late August, prison authorities chained him in solitary confinement in a cell without air conditioning despite the 40-degree Celsius heat.
Because the case is being prosecuted under state security procedures, the Supreme Court is hearing the charges in the first instance, affording no right to appeal. The court did not allow defense lawyers to cross-examine one prosecution witness and has not allowed sufficient time to cross-examine others, allowed the defense only one witness, and held the first four hearings in secret. The court has not allowed the defendants to review the evidence and charges against them, including evidence collected by the state security prosecution during the investigative period.