“Extreme conditions of detention, torture, deportation [and a] criminal conviction. Human rights lawyer Ben Keith said climate activists could face those risks if they protested at COP28, the international climate conference to be hosted by the United Arab Emirates in December.
Keith was called to the English Bar in 2004 and specializes in ‘the integration of extradition, immigration and international law’. He specializes in Red Notices (the system Interpol uses to alert police around the world that member states of the system are seeking to find, arrest and possibly extradite specific people) and its use in the UAE. (The current head of Interpol is Ahmed Nasser Al Raisi, an Emirati official who, Keith said, “faced many cases against him, including the torture of some British people.”)
Keith’s clients include British businessman Ryan Cornelius, who is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence in the UAE. Last June, a UN task force ruled that Cornelius had been arbitrarily detained since he was arrested at Dubai airport in 2008. The task force also condemned the UAE authorities for violating Cornelius’ fundamental rights.
According to Keith, the problem is not that COP 28 is being held in the UAE in the first place, but rather the rest of the world’s indifference to the country. “The United Arab Emirates is not a country that respects the rule of law or international human rights,” he told me, accusing the country of “regular use” of “torture and illegal and arbitrary detention.”
“It is outrageous, in my view, that an important UN event be held in such a country without proper reference to its human rights record,” he added. Keith and fellow lawyer Reece Davis wrote to 19 companies, including Unilever, IKEA and Coca-Cola, on behalf of an anonymous client, urging them not to participate in COP28 and to use corporate power to denounce human rights abuses.
Keith is very worried about what might happen to the protesters at COP28. “There is a big difference in the convictions of ‘stop oil’ protesters in the UK,” he said. “If they want to go to jail for breaking the law, that’s their problem. But if you do it in the UAE, you run a serious risk of being tortured.” He named one “A 2013 report by the NGO Reprieve detailed electroshocks, beatings, torture and forced confessions in Dubai Central Prison.
“I don’t know if this happens to foreigners,” Keith said. He cited the treatment of Matthew Hedges, a British doctoral student who was arrested at Dubai airport in 2018 on suspicion of spying for the British government. Hedges was sentenced to life in prison in the UAE and was later pardoned. Keith also highlighted the case of British Arsenal fan Ali Issa Ahmed, who was arrested and detained in the UAE in 2019 for wearing a Qatar national team jersey to a football match.
“If they could imprison and torture a guy wearing the wrong shirt, they’d say to those: ‘You lied about your climate change commitments; you lied about climate change; you fudged your green credentials; you held COP28 just to Whitewash your own reputation’?”
He warned that “any type” of activists could install the spyware Pegasus on their phones. However, it could be a blessing in disguise if they are stopped at the border and sent back. People who entered the UAE and protested “could be detained,” he said. “The likelihood of abuse is very high and the likelihood of conviction is almost certain.”
Keith said the UAE could have “international sensitivities”. Instead of being charged with political activism, he said, protesters are “more likely to be charged with drug offenses or some other petty crime that is fabricated to make them look like common criminals.” This would allow the UAE to Quickly convict, sentence and deport people from the UAE. “
Keith wants UAE officials to be “a bit like the Qataris at the World Cup and just ignore everyone”. Although he worries that the UAE may be too “thin-skinned” to turn a blind eye in the same way.