by Maya Goodfellow

Mariam Khalifa al-Suwaidi, Dr Alyazia Khalifa al-Suwaidi and Asma Khalifa al-Suwaidi. It’s unlikely you’ll be familiar with these three women’s names because their case hasn’t received the attention it deserves. On Friday it will be three months since they were abducted by state forces in their home country, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Their disappearance is by no means an anomaly; it’s part of the state’s growing repression of non-violent dissent. But reports of this are swept under the rug in the UK because the UAE is one of this country’s military allies in the Gulf.

In February Mariam, Alyazia and Asma (who are sisters) were reportedly called to a police station in Abu Dhabi for questioning. They haven’t been seen since. Officials have refused to acknowledge their disappearance and their family don’t know where they are but they’re almost certain that the three sisters are in prison. This kind of secret abduction, known as forced disappearance, is illegal under international law and Amnesty International have warned that there’s a chance the women are being subjected to torture and gender-based violence. Yet excluding the persistent work of human rights organisations, little has been said or done on the international stage about the illegal imprisonment of these women.

In keeping with the authorities’ silence on the matter, their family haven’t been told why they were arrested. But it’s easy to deduce what their supposed crime was. Prior to their arrest Mariam, Alyazia and Asma were campaigning for the release of their brother, Dr. Issa al-Suweidi, who was sentenced to ten years in prison in March 2014. Using social media, they questioned the legality of their brother’s trial. Five days before they disappeared, Asma tweeted:

I searched and I did not read in my brother’s case any reasonable argument leading to his isolation and imprisonment that is depriving him of life for 10 years.” (translated from Arabic)

Their Twitter profiles appear to have disappeared and just months ago, Alyazia’s blog could be found here; now there is nothing left but an ominous blank page.

cellThe state responded so quickly and brutally to the sisters’ vocal criticism because they were far too close to the truth. Their brother Issa was part of the “UAE 94“, a group of people charged with plotting to overthrow the government. Along with 93 others, Issa denied these charges, and reports suggest that the mass trial didn’t come close to meeting the international fair trial standards. The real reason they were arrested was because they, like the three sisters, dared to challenge the state. They were part of the non-violent group Al-Islah which called for political reforms in the “tightly controlled” Gulf federation (such as giving more powers to the Federal National Council).

But as the Arab Organisation for Human Rights has documented, the forced disappearances of the al-Suwaidi sisters and the imprisonment of 69 activists from the UAE 94 are part of the state’s wider clamp-down on dissent. Since 2011 UAE authorities have detained scores of people who have criticised the authorities or who are said to have links to Islamist groups.

However,the UAE’s repression of dissent has received little international attention and the UK continues to turn a blind eye. A factor in this wilful ignorance is that the UK government isn’t in the business of criticising their allies’ actions.

The oil-rich UAE, which is one of the world’s largest arms importers, has strong military ties with the UK. In fact, the UAE is of such importance to the state that just two years ago the Queen welcomed Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, to Windsor Castle. One year prior to this love-in, David Cameron agreed “a long-term defence partnership” with the UAE (which included trying, but failing, to sell typhoon jets to the country) at the Al-Minhad air base in Dubai, where he said he would bring up human rights with the UK’s “very old ally and partner”. The UK government has no interest in probing the goings on in the UAE. Not when it stands to profit from striking deals with the UAE government.

The ongoing human rights abuses in the UAE – and the UK government’s complicity in this – deserve due attention, but with an important caveat. This isn’t about suggesting that the people living in the UAE are in need of saving, nor is it about the UK swooping in as “civilised” white saviours. Instead, we can recognise – without drawing comparisons – that these women and others unlawfully detained in the UAE should be on the international agenda.

15/05/2015 We’ve received word from Amnesty International that the three sisters have been released, but reports suggest many more remain forcibly disappeared in the UAE.

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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow


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