Decline Sheikh Zayed Book Award in light of human rights violations in the UAE

Posted May 10, 2021

Scholars at Risk (SAR) joins 26 organizations in asking the recipients of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award to decline the award and withdraw from the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in light of human rights abuses in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair attempts to promote freedom of expression, scholars, human rights defenders, and peaceful dissidents remain wrongfully imprisoned for their nonviolent expressive activity. This includes Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith a prominent economist and former lecturer at the University of Paris IV Abu Dhabi who was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison.

To: Dar Al Jadeed
Dr Asma bint Muqbel bin Awad Al-Ahmadi
Dr Saeed El-Masry
Iman Mersal
Khelil Gouia
Michael Cooperson
Mizouni Bannani
Tahera Qutbuddin

Re: Your nomination for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award

Dear winners of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award,

We, the undersigned organisations, write to urge you to decline the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, and withdraw from the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair which will be held from 23 to 29 May 2021. As you are aware, on 2 May, prominent German philosopher Juergen Habermas stated that he would not accept the Award of the “Cultural Personality of the Year 2021” as a result of the “close connection of the institution (the Department of Culture and Tourism), which awards these prizes in Abu Dhabi, with the existing political system.”

We are concerned that this Award reflects the Emirati authorities’ PR strategy to invest in cultural events in a bid to hide its repression against peaceful dissenting voices. We therefore respectfully request that you reject the awards in light of the dire human rights situation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

It must not be forgotten that the UAE is an absolute monarchy without any form of democratic representation. The country is ruled by a repressive regime that tolerates no criticism or dissent:

The UAE monarchy routinely violates freedom of opinion and expression through a restrictive legal framework, including the Cybercrime Law, the Anti-Terrorism Law and the Penal Code. Today, all human rights defenders and peaceful dissidents are behind bars, making civic space virtually non-existent. Human rights defenders, political opponents and peaceful critics have faced harsh reprisals for their activism, including in the form of cyber-surveillance, harassment, intimidation, torture, and imprisonment following unfair trials before exceptional jurisdictions.

Imprisoned prisoners of conscience include:

Ahmed Mansoor, a poet and a prominent Emirati human rights defender, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence in reprisal for his peaceful human rights activism. He continues to be detained in dire conditions, in solitary confinement with no bed or books. Many authors, UN experts and Nobel laureates have called for his release, including at a literary festival in Abu Dhabi in 2020.

Dr Mohammed Al-Roken, an academic, lawyer and human rights activist, who has authored books on human rights and constitutional rights, has spent over eight years in prison. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “conspiracy against the government” for merely calling on the government, in an online petition, to initiate political reforms.

Dr Mohammed Al-Mansoori, a human rights lawyer, was also arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for signing an online petition, in the same case as Dr Al-Roken.

Dr Nasser Bin Ghaith, an academic, economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris-Sorbonne University, is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence in reprisal for criticising human rights violations in the UAE and Egypt. In 2017, in a letter written from his prison cell, he stated that “the verdict proves that there is no place for freedom of speech in this country. I was brought to court not for any crime that I had committed but for views in which I exercised my right to freedom of speech as guaranteed by national and international laws”.

Over the past few years, the UAE authorities have deployed great efforts to portray the country as a model of “tolerance”. In 2016, the UAE unveiled a National Tolerance Program and established a Ministry of Tolerance, and 2019 was declared the “Year of Tolerance”. However, this façade stands in sharp contradiction to the reality on the ground, with the authorities investing in cultural events and initiatives that aim at whitewashing the UAE’s gross human rights abuses.

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is yet another event embodying this double standard, by pretending to promote a platform for freedom of expression through literature, while imprisoning Emirati citizens and residents who have expressed dissenting views. It would thus be inappropriate to honour a government that imprisons people for writing books.

In light of the above, we urge you to reject the Award and refrain from participating in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. We believe that accepting this award would undermine your reputation and credibility and associate you with a government that systematically silences anyone peacefully expressing their opinions.

Instead, we ask you to help counter the Emirati authorities’ public relations campaign by highlighting the true face of the UAE and to stand in solidarity with those who paid a heavy price for speaking their minds. Your voice can genuinely contribute to making a difference in their lives and struggle for freedom.

We thank you for your consideration and remain available should you wish to discuss this matter.

Sincerely yours,

The undersigned:
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
ALQST for Human Rights
Association des femmes tunisiennes pour la recherche sur le developpement (AFTURD)
Association for Victims of Torture-UAE (Geneva, Switzerland)
L’Association de la mémoire collective pour la liberté et la démocratie
L’Association tunisienne de soutien des minorités
Association tunisienne pour la défense des libertés individuelles (ADLI)
Centre de Tunis pour liberté de la presse
Coalition tunisienne contre la peine de mort (CTCPM)
Le Comité pour le respect des libertés et des droits de l’homme en Tunisie
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
Fondation Hassan Saadaoui pour la démocratie et l’égalité
Forum “Mountada Ettajdid”de la pensée citoyenne et progressiste
Freedom Forward
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE)
International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR)
Ligue des écrivains tunisiens libres
Libyan American Alliance
MENA Rights Group
Organisation contre la torture en Tunisie
Rights Realization Centre (UK)
Salam for Democracy and Human Rights
Scholars at Risk
Tunisian Association for Culture and Action
Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State