Officials in the United Arab Emirates have attempted to prevent a leading rights group from publicizing a report that criticizes the UAE's record on free speech.
Human Rights Watch unveiled its World Report 2012 at a conference in Dubai on Wednesday. But after about an hour, a group of men claiming to be government employees interrupted the event and prohibited rights workers from continuing, saying the organizers failed to get proper authorization.
The findings presented by the group before the disruption revealed a campaign of harassment by UAE authorities against citizens who have called for political reform in the monarchy.
The group's researcher, Samer Muscati, says the report and the UAE response show that in a year marked by democratic advances throughout the Middle East, the Emirates is moving in the opposite direction.
"We’ve seen people being detained, charged and imprisoned for expressing their opinions," said Muscati. "So, the UAE has gone against the tide, unfortunately, of the Arab Spring."
In November, the UAE Supreme Court sentenced five local activists to prison for publicly criticizing the government online. The president later pardoned the group, but the men say their passports have yet to be returned.
"The fact that people can be charged for publicly insulting ruling officials is a very vague charge and a complete violation of international law," Muscati said. "People should be allowed to say what they want as long as they’re not inciting people to violence or defaming others."
UAE Authorities also revoked the citizenship of six men last month, some of whom had signed a petition calling for political reform earlier in the year. All of the men belong to the Islamist group al-Islah, and the government says they pose a threat to state security.
Officials also dissolved the elected boards of two nongovernmental organizations - the Jurist Association and the Teachers’ Association - after the bodies signed a public appeal in April calling for greater democracy.
Nadim Houry is the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch:
"We want to see this harassment stop immediately, but we also want to see a true commitment for change," said Houry. "The UAE authorities are capable of doing it if they have the will. We’ve seen it with the big towers they built. We know they can build the rule of law if they’re committed to it."
The UAE has made some democratic reforms in recent months, such as substantially increasing the number of eligible voters for last year’s Federal National Council election. The body has no law-making power, however, like all legislatures in the Gulf. Ultimate control rests with the ruling family.