U.N. rights expert urges UAE to free jailed activists

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FILE PHOTO: People are seen at the Cove beach Caesars Palace, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Dubai

DUBAI (Reuters) - A United Nations expert said on Wednesday that three human rights defenders imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates are being mistreated in conditions that may amount to torture and called for their release.

Lawyer Mohamed al-Roken, jailed in 2012 in a crackdown on Islamists, rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor, imprisoned in 2018 for insulting the government, and pro-democracy blogger Nasser bin Ghaith, arrested in 2015, are all serving 10-year sentences.

"Reports ... indicate that the conditions and treatment that these human rights defenders are subjected to, such as prolonged solitary confinement, are in violation of human rights standards and may constitute torture," said Mary Lawlor, an independent special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

The UAE government media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. UAE authorities have previously dismissed such accusations as false and unsubstantiated.

The U.S.-allied UAE, a Gulf trading and tourism hub and big oil producer, does not allow political parties and shows little tolerance towards dissent. State and local media are tightly controlled and freedom of speech is restricted.

After the 2011 Arab Spring, it convicted dozens of Islamists, many of them suspected of belonging to the Islah group, on charges of plotting to overthrow the government in a hearing criticised by rights groups. Islah was accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in the UAE.

Lawlor described the three rights defenders' jail sentences as an attempt to silence them and "intimidate and deter others from engaging in this legitimate work".

The statement said Mansoor went on hunger strike twice in 2019 to protest his conditions, including reportedly being held in a cell measuring four square metres with no mattress, and limited access to sunlight, a shower or portable water.

It said Bin Ghaith went on hunger strike in 2017 and 2018 to protest against being denied access to medication, as well as physical assault by prison authorities and periods in solitary confinement.

(Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; editing by Barbara Lewis)