On the first week of July 2012, a meeting was held in which top UAE officials were contemplating international law related strategies to confront Iran’s continued occupation of the three UAE islands. Few academics and legal scholars were invited to help brain out what options maybe available to flesh such a strategy. Among the few people who attended the meeting was Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, who happens to be a rare expertise in the UAE on a range of international law and legal issues. At the time, his perspective on the matter seemed critical to the government official hosting the meeting.
A week later, on 17 July 2012, Dr. Al-Roken was arrested while driving to a Dubai police station to report that his son and son-in-law were missing. The latter two were also arrested in a large crackdown on dissents in the country. An urgent appeal for action on behalf of those detained appeared on 30 July 2012 by Amnesty International.
Putting aside for a moment the bizarre political context which led to the arrest of Al-Roken, it would be nearly impossible not to accredit the man for who he is in order to understand the state of shock his arrest created. A Law graduate of the UAE Al Ain University in 1985, holder of LL.M. and Ph.D. in Constitutional Law from the University of Warwick, Coventry, England in 1992; Associate Professor of Public Law and served as a Vice Dean of the Faculty of Shari’a and Law at UAE University, Al Ain until 1998-2000; Chairman of the UAE Jurists Association (1998-2004, 2010-2013); National Vice President of International Association of Lawyer (“UIA”), France (2002-2008); Member of the International Association of Constitutional Law (IACL); Member of International Bar Association (IBA); and most importantly serving as the representative of the UAE at the International Chamber of Commerce, Arbitration Court, (ICC) Paris, France, for the year 2004.
The above clearly shows why would the government would seek his legal opinion on significant national matter. It does not, however, explain why such a national asset becomes a week later an enemy of the state and be imprisoned. This story is almost three years old, but UAE’s Attorney-General Salem Saeed Kubaish, at the time said he ordered arrest of a “group of people for establishing and managing an organization with the aim of committing crimes against state security” (as reported by the BBC on 31 July 2012). Putting back the political context into perspective, that space in time was when “debate on free speech and political freedom among Emiratis has emerged..” as report published by the New York Times on 18 July 2102 said.
In the run to his arrest, Al-Roken defended the cases of what’s known as the UAE5 (owing to a Twitter hashtag). The case involved five activists, Ahmed Mansoor, an engineer and blogger; Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist and university lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi; and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis. They have been arrested in April 2011, and tried for “publicly insulting” top United Arab Emirates officials (See Human Rights Watch report). Their crime was in fact signing an online petition calling on UAE rulers to introduce direct elections and give parliament legislative powers. More on the petition in this Wall Street Journal report published on 9 March 2011. The original Arabic text of the petition can be found here.
When Al-Roken defended this case, he knew it was more than just a legal battle, since there were not that much of a legal basis to arrest the five activists for merely signing a reform petition. He was quoted by the CNN on 9 October 2011 saying that he informed the court that his defendants “have been treated worse than convicts, and have been forced to constantly wear handcuffs”. He also said, “How can they pray or eat or go to use the bathroom with handcuffs on?”. Two of the activists whom he has been defending said Al-Roken did not accept to take money for representing him.
Long before the UAE5 case, al-Roken was arrested twice in 2006 and 2007. He was questioned about his human rights activities and consequently his passport has been confiscated and banned from leaving the country. In January 2007, he was sentenced to three months in prison for sex out-of-wedlock. But the sentence has been appealed and his passport was returned in May 2007.
Amidst a crackdown even common sense is lost to a very ambiguous concept of “security”. This is basically how the arrest of Al-Roken can be oversimplified. Has he been an alleged active member of the Isalh group, which he is not, should not be a problem in its own right. Has he been legally defending cases of dissents UAE security targeted, should not also, be a problem- every one should be represented in a court of law. Has he been a scarce expertise to the extent he is listened to by top UAE officials, is in fact, a big problem. A basic stream of consistency is lost in this context and none justifies what seems to be a blatant retribution against Al-Roken.
Amal Van Hees, Director of “Gulf Bridging” presents telling account of his non-partisan characteristics: “The liberals consider him one of them, so do the communists, so do the conservatives; no one owns Al-Roken” (refer to frame 1:44 in the AlKarama video). So why would you jail a man like that?
The UAE5 case ended by “presidential pardon” to the five activists, it was Al-Roken who confirmed to the media, including this BBC report, that pardon has been granted in November 2011. He, however, did not know that in the summer of next year he himself, will be among the UAE94 and that no pardon or fair trial will be offered to him.
“It takes an extraordinary person … to be Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken”- an expose of testimonies by prominent activists and people who knew him is provided by Amnesty International, as tokens to an ongoing campaign to convince UAE leadership to release him. In the meantime, always remember, that when you look over Dubai’s remarkable and unprecedented high towers, that among those there is one that isn’t very trendy in western tourism guides- its called Al-Roken Tower.