A united front

Are UK authors only prepared to defend the rights of people like themselves?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) government’s pardoning of UK academic Matthew Hedges earlier this week was clearly a cause for celebration. His release was the result of the courageous campaigning of his wife Daniela Tejada. After months of having her requests to meet with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt ignored, Tejada decided to disregard the Foreign Office’s advice and shared the story of her husband’s plight with the UK media. By doing so, she secured the immediate attention of Hunt along with the sympathy and support of the UK public. The UAE’s mistreatment of Matthew caused such outrage that the staff of three UK universities voted to boycott their UAE campuses and several UK authors booked to appear at next March’s state-sponsored Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai announced that they would boycott the festival if Hedges remained in prison.

The UAE is currently the world’s fourth largest buyer of arms and one of the UK’s most lucrative trading partners. The UK government has a track record of prioritising trade over human rights in its dealings with the Gulf state, and it seems likely that, if the UK public had been indifferent to Hedges’ predicament, he would still be languishing in an Abu Dhabi jail. The academic and author boycotts of the UAE helped to send an emphatic signal to both governments that the UK public were not willing to turn a blind eye to such shocking mistreatment of a fellow citizen.

Obscene miscarriages of justice like Matthew’s are everyday occurrences in the UAE, where writers, academics and journalists are routinely arrested, imprisoned and tortured for expressing the mildest criticism of the country’s sociopathic leaders. In the words of Amnesty International’s Middle East director Lynn Maalouf: "The authorities have left no room for doubt: those who dare to speak their minds freely in the UAE today risk grave punishment."

One of the UAE’s notable prisoners of conscience is engineer and blogger Ahmed Mansoor, formerly described by Amnesty as "the last remaining Emirati human rights defender". On being released after eight months in prison in 2011 for the crime of "insulting officials", the UAE government confiscated Mansoor’s passport, forcing him to remain in the country. Knowing full well that his actions would inevitably result in further imprisonment and torture, Mansoor continued to speak out against human rights violations in the UAE. In 2015, a jury of 10 global human rights organisations, including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, awarded him the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in recognition of his courageous work.

In March 2017, Mansoor was re-arrested and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for the "crime" of criticising the UAE government on social media. Unlike Daniela Tejada, Mansoor’s wife is unable to campaign for his release. The family and friends of UAE prisoners of conscience who challenge prisoners’ convictions are liable to become prisoners themselves, and that would leave Mansoor’s four young children without a parent. If Mansoor and the many other UAE prisoners of conscience convicted purely for exercising their freedom of expression are to be pardoned, the pressure must come from outside the UAE.
If UK authors are prepared to boycott a festival over the unfair imprisonment of a single innocent UK citizen, then surely we should be prepared to do the same for the scores of innocent Emiratis, like Ahmed Mansoor. If not, we’re effectively saying that the welfare and liberty of a UK citizen is worth far more than that of a foreigner imprisoned for defending the freedom of others.

I’d like to think that UK authors are better than that. Freedom of expression is the fundamental principle on which our craft depends; whether we boycott the festival or choose to attend it, UK authors should challenge those who are brutally suppressing freedom of expression within the UAE. So, as we celebrate Matthew Hedges’ release, we should also speak out to defend the rights of those who have no one else to defend them.

Jonathan’s most recent book, illustrated by Ingela P Arrhenius, is a board book titled Alphabet Street. It was published in the UK by Nosy Crow on 4th October, priced £12.99.