On 17 February 2024, the world woke to the news that human rights activist and long-time opponent of the Putin regime, Alexei Navalny, had died in a Russian prison. The 47 year old Kremlin critic and civil rights crusader was serving in the Kharp penal colony, one of Russia’s highest security prisons, a 19 year sentence on politically motivated charges of inciting extremist activity. And while Navalny’s family and friends, together with many others in Russia and around the world, grieved, none could claim surprise – both Navalny and his team had repeatedly warned that the detention conditions could only conduce to this result.

In August 2020, while on a flight inside Russia, Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a weapon of choice for the Russian security services since the Soviet era. He was evacuated to Germany for emergency medical treatment and his life was saved, however, on returning to Moscow in January 2021, Navalny was arrested because the hospitalization in Germany had violated the terms of his parole from a previous conviction. Since then he has been continuously imprisoned and had even more jail-time tacked on to his existing sentence so as to ensure he would never see the light of freedom again.

Alexei Navalny once told a Russian Supreme Court judge that a newspaper is a necessity in solitary confinement, because in the freezing two by three meter cells it’s much warmer to sleep covered with a newspaper than without one. According to his team, Navalny spent 308 days out of the past three years in such solitary confinement. But even when he wasn’t inside a punishment cell, he was still kept isolated from the outside world, the high security designation of the prison meaning that even family visits were prohibited. In March 2021, Alexei Navalny went on a three week long hunger strike demanding that his rights as a prisoner be respected, and the penal authorities provide him with medical treatment and proper medication.

Prison, cold, isolation, intimidation, solitary confinement. Perhaps all totalitarian regimes dream of inducing a slow, hopeless death on their critics. While Navalny was spending his last days in isolation and terror a few thousand miles south another crusader for human rights spent his days in similar conditions. The human rights activist and dissident Ahmed Mansoor carries obvious parallels with the torment and death of Navalny.

Educated in the United States as an engineer, Ahmed Mansoor returned to the UAE in 2001 and began his activism in 2006 by defending freedom of speech in the online arena and advocating for a deepening of the democratic process in his country. He fell afoul of the authorities after the Arab Spring triggered the 2011 crackdown by the Emirati security forces against dissidents and human rights activists. Mansoor, along with others, was arrested and given a three year prison sentence for “publicly insulting” the UAE authorities, however he was pardoned shortly afterwards due to the outcry from international rights groups.

Ahmed Mansoor was free, but under the constant surveillance of the Emirati intelligence. During this period his phone was targeted by spyware, his email accounts hacked, his passport confiscated, his car was stolen, money disappeared from his bank account and he was repeatedly assaulted by strangers. In 2017 Mansoor was arrested again and this time convicted to 10 years in prison for using social media platforms to publish information claiming that “the UAE was oppressive and abusive against its people.”

On his multiple court hearings, Ahmed Mansoor revealed that he was being kept in solitary confinement and denied contact with the outside world, in violation of both international and UAE law. In fact, for at least four years, Mansoor was continuously kept in a two by two meter solitary confinement cell, even smaller than the one Navalny suffered in. To further punish him, the prison authorities took away his clothes, papers and mattress, forcing him to sleep on the concrete floor during the freezing desert nights, for months at a time. As a result Mansoor’s health deteriorated and he now requires constant medication.

For a long time Mansoor was denied visits by his family, outside phone calls and walks in the exercise yard, even when these rights were awarded to most other inmates in the same prison. He only “won” some of the same privileges as prisoners in the general population after a 49 day hunger strike in 2019 during which Mansoor lost eleven kilograms of body weight. However, even though he is now allowed regular exercise walks, the yard is emptied of other prisoners beforehand so as to deny Ahmed Mansoor any meaningful human contact.

President Biden once called Navalny’s maltreatment in prison “totally unfair” and the White House, through National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, warned the Kremlin “that there will be consequences if Mr. Navalny dies.” Top European Union dignitaries, such as Josep Borrell and Ursula von der Leyen, have also decried the abuses committed by the Russian authorities. For a few days last year, a replica of Alexei Navalny’s solitary confinement cell stood erected in front of the European Parliament in Brussels and the public was invited to visit and imagine itself in Navalny’s place. In response to Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment, both the EU and the United States have imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials.

By contrast, the reaction of world leaders to the abuses suffered by Ahmed Mansoor at the hands of the Emirati authorities has been rather muted. Apart from a 2021 EU parliament resolution calling for Mansoor’s release and an inquiry to the UAE embassy in Washington by a handful of US senators, most of the criticism has originated in the civil rights NGO space, from organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In 2021 the United States even designated the UAE as a Major Security Partner. This raises the question, why does the international community respond so differently in the cases of Alexei Navalny and Ahmed Mansoor?

The answer cannot simply be money. While investment and commercial ties between the UAE and the Western World are significant, Russia dwarfs them by sheer size. A better explanation is that during the past decade the UAE has invested heavily in a concerted PR campaign depicting the Emirates as an oasis of tolerance and stability in a region of fundamentalism and repression. To a considerable extent, the success of the Emirati propaganda has dissuaded international leaders from pointing the finger to the human rights abuses taking place inside the UAE or the war crimes committed in the Yemen and Libya theaters of military operations.

But perhaps there is even a deeper root to this double standard. Many of us, in the collective West, feel that for better or worse, though mostly for worse, Russia is a European country where liberal and democratic values will eventually prevail. As such, Alexei Navalny was hailed as an agent for this propitious and inevitable transformation.

On the other hand, or so the story goes, Ahmed Mansoor’s home is a different kettle of fish. In a land of despotism since time immemorial, not pushing too hard for the enforcement of Western ideals like universal human rights and freedom of speech is merely being sympathetic to the historic and cultural peculiarities of the Middle East. To this line of reasoning one should reply: “Dear people of the West, when open-mindedness doesn’t favor the oppressed but those holding the whip, it’s time to rethink your values and priorities.”

The fact of the matter remains that while both the UAE and Russia have authoritarian regimes shored up by the wealth generated through oil extraction, the similarities between the two countries end here. While Russia is making a bid for autarky, the Emirates are desperate to build up the soft power and attract the human capital that will allow them to act as a global business, financial and commercial hub once the oil runs dry.

Therefore, the Emirati authorities are bound to be more receptive than Russia if Western media and decision makers condemn the abuses committed against Ahmed Mansoor. In the United Arab Emirates everything, up to and including life and death, is negotiable. Not only will the persecution end but, if their Western partners are forceful enough, Mansoor will most likely be freed and rehabilitated. On the other hand, if Western leaders continue to remain complacent then Ahmed Mansoor is already condemned to the same fate as Navalny – a death sentence in slow motion.

Written by Eagle


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