Read: Watching Britain’s influence shrink in real time
I was arbitrarily given high doses of medication, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills, antihistamines, and sleeping pills, and as my requests for any further visitations were denied, my depression worsened. I was vomiting on a daily basis, I attempted self-harm, and my suicidal thoughts intensified. When I was sentenced to life imprisonment in November, little changed—I was immediately returned to isolation without being able to say goodbye to my wife, who was present in court, and the interrogations continued.
Still, I am the first to recognize that I was among the lucky ones. The UAE is a serial human-rights abuser, and while I was detained, I regularly heard people being physically tortured in adjacent rooms. At one point during my questioning, I was told the security services had intended to take me only after I had been processed through immigration. Effectively, if that plan had been followed and my mother had not witnessed my arrest, there would be no record of my detention.
It would be easy to dismiss my case as one of overreach by zealous security officers, but it is far from an outlier.
Nasser bin Ghaith, Ahmed Mansour, and Mohammed al-Roken are just a few of the more prominent names currently being held in worse conditions than I experienced. Their crime? Being independent thinkers. Domestic targets of the Emirati intelligence services have no real legal protection and their families are also often intimidated and harassed. The UAE overtly disregards international legal standards in both its foreign and domestic policy, a point made clear at a conference I participated in last week in Washington, D.C., where other people came forward with their own testimonies of abuse and intimidation at the hands of the Emirati security forces. Unbelievably, the Emirati minister of foreign affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, said at a conference with Emirati students in July 2018—while I and others were being held—that failing to learn was equivalent to “failing oneself and failing one’s country.” The truth is that Emirati researchers are among the first to be targeted in the UAE.
This repression of intellectual practices is a common symptom of authoritarian regimes. And you don’t need to look far for chilling examples elsewhere in the Middle East, from the murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian researcher examining labor unions in Egypt, to that of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Free debate and knowledge creation are the antithesis of any authoritarian society.
Read: The end of American lip service to human rights
These kind of actions do not happen in a vacuum. Western governments’ complicity, primarily by way of silence, gives authoritarian rulers confidence in their actions. National leaders, Britain’s included, are reticent to condemn countries they regard as security allies over human-rights violations (President Donald Trump has gone further, explicitly dismissing such concerns in favor of arms sales). But it is not simply governments that are to blame. My own university has been criticized for its close ties to Gulf states, and the discussion is even fiercer at institutions such as New York University and the Sorbonne, both of which have defended their choices to have satellite campuses in the UAE. After hundreds of faculty and students petitioned NYU to condemn the UAE government for detaining me, the university president released a statement about the broad importance of academic freedom, but said his knowledge of my experience was limited to what he’d seen in news reports. The Sorbonne has been similarly circumspect in its response to criticism.