Rights group: UAE should stop expelling Syrian protesters

Story highlights

  • On February 10, more than 2000 people protested against the Syrian regime in Dubai
  • As demonstrators didn't have a permit to protest, Dubai police asked them to leave
  • Source: Most left, but dozens stayed behind and continued protesting, some Syrians
  • Source: 60 Syrians had their residency permits revoked
Authorities in the United Arab Emirates should "retract their decision to cancel the residency permits of dozens of Syrians who took part in a peaceful protest against the Syrian government in Dubai," Human Rights Watch said in a statement Friday.
On February 10, more than 2000 people protested against the Syrian regime in Dubai. As the demonstrators didn't have a permit to protest, Dubai police asked them to leave.
According to a source close to the leadership of the Syrian National Council, which opposes the Syrian government, most left, but dozens stayed behind and continued protesting. About 60 Syrians had their residency permits revoked, the source told CNN on Monday.
In their statement, HRW said the UAE canceled the residency permits of about 50 Syrians for demonstrating. But a United Arab Emirates official told CNN on Monday that the number of Syrians affected was much lower.
"The decision was not to renew the residence of a few people -- much less than 60. It was around 30," said the official, who did not want to be identified. "It was not to deport them or to send them to Syria. It was to give them the option to go anywhere they wish."
The official said authorities could have arrested hundreds because "the demonstration was not licensed. It was not legal. Nevertheless, nobody touched anybody, nobody was arrested."
He added that the Syrians who lost residency permits had been "involved in other activities" -- but would not detail what those activities were.
In their statement, HRW said, "the UAE government has shown little tolerance for public demonstrations or strikes, regardless of whether they are peaceful."
In the UAE, gatherings and demonstrations are not allowed without a government permit.
The source close to the SNC leadership told CNN that while the protesters who stayed "were in the wrong" for not leaving when told to do so, but "that doesn't mean the UAE needs to cancel their residencies."
The source said the SNC has been negotiating with the UAE's foreign ministry and was assured last week that the permits would be reinstated -- but that has not happened.
He said protesters are "asking for mercy from UAE authorities, as this won't just affect the men whose residencies were canceled -- but their families as well."
The United Arab Emirates is one of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries to have expelled Syrian envoys and to have recalled their Ambassadors from Syria in response to the government's crackdown there.
"The UAE calls on Syrian President Assad to respect the right of peaceful protesters, yet it is expelling Syrians from its country for exercising this basic right," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in HRW's statement.
Added Whitson, "these expulsions show that Emirati authorities are intolerant of any protest or expression of dissent on UAE soil even if it is not geared toward them."
A Syrian who left after Emirati officials gave him 10 days to depart told CNN earlier this week that he is worried about his future.
"I lived and worked in the UAE for years, all my family is there. I never did anything wrong," said the man who did not want to be named out of fear for his family.
According to HRW, other Syrian nationals in the UAE are not speaking out about their expulsion because they are afraid they will be deported to Syria.
The rights group said, "Syrian protesters forced out of the UAE face a significant risk to their personal security if they return to Syria. ... The protesters also are at risk of persecution on return to Syria if Syrian authorities find out they protested against the regime or the circumstances of their expulsion."
The source close to the SNC leadership, said UAE authorities gave the Syrians a deadline of this past February 29 to leave the country, and that at least five have left the UAE in recent days -- including two to Egypt, two to Jordan and one to Saudi Arabia, he said. The UAE official said the deadline is "flexible."
According to HRW, at least 10 of the protesters had to leave the UAE, with "some of them going to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar."
The rights group added they do not have any information indicating that anyone was sent back to Syria. The UAE official who spoke to CNN said none of those asked to leave the country had been deported to Syria.