In a prosecution that has drawn criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups, two U.S. citizens held in the United Arab Emirates on charges of supporting terrorist groups hope to prove their confessions were coerced by torture when their trial resumes Monday.
Kamal Eldarat, a real estate developer, and his son, Mohamed, who operates a string of Subway sandwich shops, were arrested 17 months ago in the small, oil-rich country where they have lived for two decades.
Amal Eldarat says her father and brother, who are also Libyan nationals, were held incommunicado for months, beaten and subjected to electric shocks and mock executions in a remote desert prison. She said the two men then signed “confessions” that they are acquainted with Libyans whom the UAE considers linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. But she said they are guilty of nothing more than returning to their homeland in the heady days after Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011, to celebrate and bring humanitarian aid.
Though the UAE says the Eldarats have been accorded due process, their prosecution has been condemned by human rights groups and the United Nations, whose special rapporteur on torture has called for their unconditional release.
The UAE also has been rebuked by the State Department, although in measured tones. U.S. consular officials have been allowed to visit the men only sporadically.
The State Department has issued one statement about the Eldarats, noting the accusations of mistreatment, and said U.S. officials “have raised these allegations with senior leaders of the UAE government, and have requested that local authorities provide them access to medical care and appropriate treatment while in prison.”
After months of silence, the Eldarat family has started to speak publicly about the plight of the two men. If they are found guilty, no appeal is allowed under Emirati law.
Amal Eldarat said that her brother, Mohamed, 34, has lost hearing in one ear and that her father, 59, has lost weight and hair, and is stooped from chronic back pain exacerbated by his treatment in prison.
“It’s not my dad,” she said of the last time she saw him. “He’s gone.”
For the United States, the Eldarat case presents an uncomfortable dilemma. The UAE is one of Washington’s closest allies in the region. It has joined the military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and is one of the 17 countries in the International Syria Support Group, which is trying to broker peace talks to end Syria’s civil war.
Scholars of the Persian Gulf countries say the UAE has grown more aggressive against alleged Islamist extremism in the years since the Arab Spring of 2011. In 2014, shortly after the Eldarats were arrested, the UAE compiled a list of more than 80 groups it said were terrorists, including some organizations that operate freely in the United States and Europe.
Critics say the government has also cracked down on residents who are peacefully advocating democratic reform. The State Department’s most recent Human Rights Report, for 2014, cited limitations on civil liberties, including arrests for Internet postings and commentary, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions and brutality from police officers and prison guards.
“This case epitomizes the benefits and challenges we have with our gulf allies,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a gulf analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“On the one hand, they are very aggressive when it comes to clamping down on terrorists inside their countries because they believe it’s in their own interests, and our strategic interests meet,” she said. “On the other hand, there’s a values disconnect between us and the gulf states. We view people pressing political reform as making a positive contribution to our own society and the societies of our gulf allies. Our gulf allies don’t view it that way.”
Human rights activists say Washington has been overly cautious in its criticism.
“The Obama administration, like prior administrations before it, has a long-standing track record of prioritizing geopolitical relations over individual freedoms,” said Sunjeev Bery, Middle East advocacy director for Amnesty International USA. “This particular case suggests there is a risk the United States may prioritize its relations with the UAE government at a potential risk to the human rights of American citizens.”
Niles Cole, a spokesman for consular affairs in the State Department, said U.S. officials are limited in the help they can offer citizens arrested overseas. They can protest mistreatment and insist they get medical care and a fair trial, as well as consular visits, he said.
“We’ve repeatedly raised concerns because of health issues,” Cole said. “They’ve occasionally seen medical professionals, and received some treatments, but not those prescribed. We’re very concerned. We continue to press officials to get them access to appropriate medical care. That’s what’s within the limits of our legal authority.”
Cole said embassy officials were not given permission to visit the Eldarats until last October, more than a year after their arrest. They have visited them since, but not frequently or as often as requested, he said. Embassy officials also have attended the two previous court sessions and will attend future hearings.
The Eldarats were among 10 Libyan businessmen arrested in the days after UAE and Egyptian planes launched airstrikes against Islamist militias fighting in Libya’s civil war. Several were later released and deported.
When the Eldarats were charged on Jan. 18, more than 16 months after their arrest, they were accused of helping two of the militias, Libya Dawn and the February 17 Martyr’s Brigade. The UAE contends they are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a designated terrorist group on the UAE list. Neither Libya Dawn nor the February 17 brigade, which was once hired to protect the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, are designated terrorist groups by the United States or the United Nations.
Amal Eldarat said her father and brother had nothing to do with either militia. She traced UAE suspicions to a trip the two men made to Libya in 2011.
Kamal Eldarat fled his home town of Misurata during Gaddafi’s reign and settled in California in the 1980s, later moving to the UAE. But he and his son returned to Libya after Gaddafi was killed and the country was embroiled in civil war. She said they brought food, clothes and satellite phones.
“This is all anti-Arab Spring,” she said of the charges against her relatives, adding that she wants the State Department to be more forceful in coming to their defense. “I’m not asking for special treatment. I’m just asking for my dad and brother to have their basic rights.”