United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States Yousef al Otaiba, shown during a Feb. 13, 2009, interview with the Associated Press in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
Deputy Editorial Page Editor

Amal Eldarat, a 28-year-old U.S.-born, London-educated woman who until recently worked for Deloitte consulting in Dubai, visited me last week to recount the horrific story of her father and brother, both also U.S. citizens, who were abducted by United Arab Emirates security forces 18 months ago and then tortured into false confessions of supporting terrorism.

It was a sadly familiar tale. Kamal Eldarat and his son Momed were, according to U.N. human rights authorities, unjustly detained in August 2014, held incommunicado for three months at an undisclosed location and subjected to extensive torture, including waterboarding, electric shocks, beatings and hangings. They were denied access to a lawyer and regular family visits and were not informed of the allegations against them until they were abruptly brought before a court last month. Charged under a law that went into effect only after their arrests, they could be sentenced to life in prison or death, with no possibility of appeal, when their trial resumes on Feb. 29.

As Amal Eldarat plausibly described it, her father and brother, both successful businessmen, were targeted because of the family’s Libyan roots and their participation in aid efforts during and after the 2011 Arab Spring. The elder Eldarat had sought political asylum in the United States from the dictatorship of Moammar Gaddafi; when the country rebelled against Gaddafi, the family pitched in to help their ancestral city, Misrata, which was at the center of the fighting.

Years later, the Misrata forces were on one side of Libya’s civil war, while the Emirati government backed the other. Days after UAE warplanes intervened in the fighting, security forces at home rounded up 10 men of Libyan ancestry, whom they accused of supporting “terrorist” groups. The American Eldarats, with no connections to radical Islamists, were nevertheless swept up. “They were tortured nonstop,” Amal told me. When she was finally allowed a visit, six months after the arrests, she found her father stooped with back pains, while her brother had lost hearing in one ear.

“I could see the torture marks on my dad’s neck,” she said. “My father, my brother — they weren’t the same people that I knew.”

As I listened to this, I couldn’t help thinking of similar stories I’ve listened to in the past several years — like that of Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian American graduate of Ohio State University who was arrested in Cairo following the 2013 coup and held for 21 months, during which he was badly tortured. Or that of Maryam al-Khawaja, a former Fulbright scholar at Brown University who has traveled the world advocating for her father and sister, human rights activists who were imprisoned in Bahrain after its 2011 uprising.

What these cases have in common are Western-educated and, in several cases, literally Americanized Arabs who were inspired by the dream of democratic change in their homelands — and then deliberately targeted by the reactionary Sunni regimes that have reimposed and reinforced the old autocratic order. These rulers claim to be fighting Islamist terrorism, which they conflate with nonviolent Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But they consider their worst enemies to be the pro-democracy activists who aspire to reform their stale, reactionary and ultimately untenable regimes.

Amid a maelstrom of sectarianism and extremism, the Arab democrats represent the Middle East’s best hope. But they are often ignored these days in Washington, where both the Obama administration and most of its Republican opponents have reembraced brutal Sunni strongmen such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. The administration does its best to ignore their cruel repression, even when it involves U.S. citizens.

That’s probably why the State Department said not one word in public about the Eldarat case until I inquired about it last week. The response I received was a carefully neutral statement that said State had “raised” the Eldarats’ “allegations” of “mistreatment” with the UAE government, but contained no word of protest or even concern.

Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE’s energetic ambassador, portrays his country as a staunch U.S. ally against the Islamic State. When I asked him about the Eldarat case, he emailed me a Foreign Ministry statement that claimed that the men were receiving “due process . . . in accordance with international fair trial standards.”

That would be news to Amal Eldarat, who last month finally was able to see the case file. The only “evidence” in it was 200 pages of typed “confessions” that Kamal, a real estate developer, and Momed, a Subway franchise owner, had been forced to sign.

Fortunately for the Eldarats, the U.N. findings may have embarrassed the regime. At the last court session last week, the judge agreed to allow an investigation of the torture charges. The family hopes that more international attention will prompt the regime to drop the case. If so, they will be lucky exceptions to a dismal trend.

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