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UAE: Activists host alternative expo to highlight human rights abuses

More than two dozen groups held the online event to raise awareness about the plight of Emirati political prisoners
The UAE is the first country in the Middle East to host the World Expo
The UAE is the first country in the Middle East to host the World Expo (AFP)

More than two dozen rights groups held an alternative expo on Thursday to pay tribute to human rights defenders that have been detained or persecuted in the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf nation is hosting the 2020 World Expo, and opened its fair earlier this month with a lavish ceremony that included fireworks and musical performances. The UAE hopes the six-month event will spark an influx of investment after its economy was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

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In Thursday's online event, activists came together with musicians, poets, and visual artists from across the Middle East to share their talents and stand in solidarity with prisoners of conscience, and to highlight rights abuses in the Emirates.

"The country claims that when the world comes together, we create a better tomorrow. In reality, the UAE continues to invest in whitewashing, manipulation, and controlling and monitoring and imprisoning human rights defenders," said Weaam Youssef, a programme manager at the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

"Creating a better world is impossible without the help and contributions of human rights defenders.

"In the UAE, every rights defender has been either exiled [or] imprisoned, in violation of their rights for freedom of expression."

In the two-hour event, a dozen speakers shared stories of their art and their activism, critical of the governments of the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

'Shutting down activism'

Stars headlining the opening ceremony of the Expo 2020, which was projected in public spaces around the UAE, included Italian tenor singer Andrea Bocelli, British singer Ellie Goulding, Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu.

Yet the "alt-expo" noted that there would be a number of individuals that would not be present at the fair, including Emirati rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his calls for reform in the country.

"[Mansoor] was imprisoned for his peaceful and legitimate work in the field of human rights," said Khalid Ibrahim of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch called Expo 2020 a chance for Abu Dhabi to "falsely present itself on the world stage as open, tolerant, and rights-respecting while shutting down the space for politics, public discourse, and activism".

"Dozens of UAE peaceful domestic critics have been arrested, railroaded in blatantly unfair trials, and condemned to many years in prison simply for trying to express their ideas on governance and human rights," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

The country has also come under fire from Amnesty International after it was reported that Israel's Pegasus spyware was used by the UAE to spy on international journalists, activists and world leaders.

While the European Parliament urged nations to not participate in the expo, citing the UAE's treatment of migrant workers, the oil-rich nation has not faced the same level of criticism or calls for boycotts as its neighbour Saudi Arabia did when it hosted the G20 summit last year.

In a separate development on Thursday, the Guardian reported that the University of Cambridge had broken off talks with the UAE over a record £400m ($550m) collaboration, the university's vice-chancellor has said.