Dual American-Libyan businessmen to be tried after 505 days of detention in the UAE

 Mohamed Eldarat, right, who has been detained with his father Kamal for 500 days without charge. He is pictured here with his sister Isra. Photograph: Amal Eldarat
Mohamed Eldarat, right, who has been detained with his father Kamal for 500 days without charge. He is pictured here with his sister Isra. Photograph: Amal Eldarat

Two Americans who claim to have survived mock executions, electric shocks and beatings in a prison likened to a “haunted house” in the United Arab Emirates will go on trial next week on terrorism charges, despite the pleas of family members, the UN and human rights groups’ call to dismiss the case.

Dual US-Libyan citizens Kamal and Mohamed Eldarat, father and son, will appear in court on 29 February, after 505 days without charges and months of silence from their family, who feared repercussions for going public. But spurred by a UN report supporting the claims of torture, another North American family’s campaign and growing frustration with the UAE, Kamal’s eldest daughter broke her silence this week.

“My dad was literally kidnapped from home,” Amal Eldarat, 27, told the Guardian. Her father was an unlikely abductee: a real estate developer who raised his family in California and London, and worked in Dubai since 1998 without incident. But the night of 26 August 2014, a day after reports that the UAE and Egypt had intervened in Libya’s civil war with airstrikes, several black cars rolled up to the Eldarat’s home.

Eldarat, who recently moved to Washington to help with her family’s case, said large men “like club bouncers” rushed into their Dubai home, followed in by a woman in uniform who refused to answer questions or show a warrant. The woman then locked Eldarat and her mother in a room for more than an hour, while the men rifled through belongings and surrounded the head of the family.

“I was screaming ‘don’t sign anything’ as I went upstairs to grab his glasses,” Eldarat said, “and as I came downstairs one of the men took the glasses, and the next thing I know I’m running outside and seeing him put in this normal, black car with Abu Dhabi plates. It happened so quickly.”

The house was left in tatters. The state security officers, who eventually became familiar faces to the family, had taken laptops, iPhones, an iPad and the home’s security system. The next day, Eldarat’s brother, 34-year-old Mohamed, started asking after his father at police stations, the US embassy, the foreign ministry, all without any answers.

Then UAE state security called to say they had questions for him, and arrived at the house at night, Amal Eldarat said. She answered the door again – “I said, ‘Oh God, it’s you guys again” – and her brother was hustled into another black car.

For months, Amal Eldarat, her mother, sisters and US consular services could not locate the prisoners. “Every day my mom was crying and screaming, ‘What do you mean, how can they just disappear?’” Eldarat said. “We didn’t even know who these people are, maybe it’s some gang, they had no warrant, no uniform, no sign of any official authority.”

The Eldarats, a Canadian-Libyan, and three other Libyan businessmen were rounded up that week in 2014; though one Libyan was released four months later and promptly deported, none were formally charged until 18 January 2016, when a judge finally told them they stood accused of supporting terrorism. The five prisoners have accused the UAE of torturing them, and a UN report published last week concurred, citing “reliable information on the acts of torture” such as visible injuries.The Eldarats and the UN have said their confessions were coerced by torture, and the family maintains that the pair have never supported terrorism.

About five months after his arrest, Kamal Eldarat was allowed to call home. He learned from his wife that his son had also disappeared. “He was in ultimate shock,” Amal said. Not long after, Mohamed also called, as did the other prisoners to their families. None would speak about release.

Eventually, the prisoners were moved out of secret detention to a normal prison. Kamal Eldarat described his time in the state security prison as “the darkest days in his life”, his daughter said.

She paraphrased his own account: “It’s not a prison, it’s a technological haunted house, with lighting [effects], strange noises, hallucinations and torture: beatings, hot showers like waterboarding, electrocuting.”

Guards performed a mock execution on her brother, she said, leaving him hanging for several minutes in his cell.

Only after weeks of wrangling by consular officials did the family manage a visit. “My dad was like a walking skeleton, aged 30 years. It was like he was gone,” Amal said, adding that she could notice bruises on his arms. He complained about back pains and a lack of medical care. Similarly, her brother said he was losing his hearing, and by last month’s court appearance his left ear had ceased to function.

In their first, 20-minute court hearing last month, neither the Eldarats or Alaradi were allowed a lawyer. Eleven days later, their lawyer was given a copy of his clients’ file, which finally told him that they were charged under a terrorism law that was enacted after their arrest.

The file consists of 200 pages of typed confessions and signatures at the very end, Amal said: “No bank statements, no materials, no evidence, nothing.” Since becoming disillusioned by Emirati officials, who claimed the family’s silence would better secure her relatives’ release, Amal quit her job as a financial analyst in Dubai and started campaigning full-time to press members of Congress in Washington on her family’s behalf.

The UN also called for the case to be dismissed in its report, saying: “All of [the prisoners] were deprived of the right to challenge their arrest and detention before the judicial authorities and subjected to enforced disappearance, secret and incommunicado detention.”

The US has had a more muted response to its Emirati ally, which has joined the coalition campaign against Isis in Syria and which hosts a joint US-UAE anti-terrorism agency in Abu Dhabi.

Mark Toner, a deputy spokesman for the Department of State, said that embassy officials had attended the January hearing and all subsequent hearings.

Toner said that US officials know of the torture claims and “have raised these allegations with senior leaders of the UAE government”. He said they also requested “access to medical care and appropriate treatment while in prison”.

The UAE embassy and foreign ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but its ambassador to the US, Yousef al Otaiba, emailed a Washington Post editorial editor a statement that said the men have been treated “in accordance with international fair trial standards”.

Human rights groups and the Eldarats, however, maintain that the detentions and trials are politically motivated. Although the three men have spent decades raising families in the west and working in the UAE, they have roots in western Libya, a region at war with eastern factions since the country overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The UAE has cracked down on dissent and taken a more active role abroad since the Arab uprisings of 2011. Late last year, Amnesty International suggested that the detention of a prominent academic meant a new effort to stifle free speech, and Human Rights Watch has documented a string of arbitrary detentions and torture reports in the country.

“Any country whose citizens earn their living in the UAE should express their great concern over these torture allegations,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s regional director. “This is a country where the state security apparatus is accused over and over of torturing people to get confessions.”

Mosaab Ahmed Abd el Aziz, an Egyptian held in the same prison as the Eldarats, recently managed to get a statement to HRW. “If I was asked to confess to coming from Mars to destroy Earth,” Abd el Aziz said, “I would have, just to get it over with.”

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