A Tougher Stance: A bill awaits the signature of Emirati President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan that will toughen terrorism laws. (Dan Kitwood/ / AFP)
DUBAI — The United Arab Emirates Federal National Council has approved a revised draft of its 10-year-old counterterrorism law to respond to evolving threats last week.
Under the new legislation, convicted terrorists would face capital punishment, life imprisonment or fines of up to 100 million dirham (US $27.2 million).
The 70-article bill says “terrorist” capital offenses include deadly attacks, including ones on a head of state, his family, or a representative or officer of a state; joining or coercing others to join a terrorist organization; hijacking; taking hostages; infringing on diplomatic or consular premises in committing a terrorist act; using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons; and assaulting security forces.
If the new law is approved by the UAE Cabinet of Ministers and signed by President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, a person need only threaten, incite or plan any terrorist act to be prosecuted as a terrorist. As well, crimes committed “with terrorist intent” would carry much greater penalties than those without.
“Whoever seeks or communicates with a foreign state, terrorist organisation or with anyone who works for their interests, to commit any terrorist act shall be punished with imprisonment for life, while the death penalty will be imposed if the terrorist act has been carried out,” the circulated draft law said.
The bill would also make it a crime punishable for up to 10 years in jail to withhold from authorities information relating to any terrorist activity.
The law would also authorize the UAE Cabinet to set up lists of designated terrorist organizations and persons. The Cabinet can also establish prison centers to give convicted terrorists intensive religious and welfare counseling to dissuade them from extremist views.
The UAE’s action mirrors a trend in the West, which has added legal tools to fight terrorism since 9/11, said David Andrew Weinberg, senior fellow and Gulf Affairs expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Weinberg also said the proposed law seems comparable to others in GCC nations. Other gulf states have introduced legislation outlawing citizens from fighting in foreign wars. In Bahrain, joining an overseas conflict can draw a five-year prison sentence; in Saudi Arabia, between three and 20 years.
“However,” he said, “the sentences in this new law seem much harsher than the West’s laws for countering terrorism.”
“The UAE is right to be concerned about terrorism,” Weinberg said. “However, part of the legacy of this law will come in terms of how it is implemented and what is ultimately labeled terrorism in practice.”
He said that if the list of terrorist groups to be drawn up under this law is seen by the UAE’s neighbors or other countries as politically motivated, that could undermine the law’s perceived legitimacy.
Weinberg also noted that GCC governments have used counterterrorism laws against non-terrorist defendants as well.
He said the American and European response to the new counterterrorism law is likely to be mixed.
“On the one hand, these countries have been encouraging the UAE for years to update its legislation on terrorism and terrorism finance. On the other hand, Western officials will likely convey their concern that counterterrorism laws in the UAE not be used unjustly,” he said.
Ahmed Al Zaabi, head of the legislative and legal affairs committee at the Federal National Council, told the Abu Dhabi daily The National that the committee had already held several meetings before the extraordinary session on July 21.
“Today, the issue of terrorism is important and the old 2004 law does not cover all the fields,” Al Zaabi was quoted as saying.
The 2004 law primarily addressed terror financing. All UAE banks were placed under the authority of the Central Bank through its Banking Supervision and Examination Department, which monitors banks and other financial institutions. The law allows the Central Bank to freeze funds anywhere in the UAE, and to monitor accounts that may be used to facilitate terrorism.
No terrorist attacks have occurred in the UAE to date.
In April 2013, UAE security officials said they had dismantled an “al-Qaida cell” that was planning attacks in the country. They did not elaborate.
Nevertheless, the government has prosecuted several high-profile cases. Last year, the UAE convicted more than 60 people said to be members of an “international” branch of the Muslim Brotherhood who stole secret information from the security services and attempted to seize power in the country. Fifty-six received prison sentences ranging from three to 10 years. Eight were sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail and 26 were acquitted.
In May, nine people were tried on charges of supporting the al-Nusra Front in Syria. UAE state security prosecutors accused seven of the defendants of “joining the terrorist al-Qaida organisation and forming a cell in the UAE to promote its ideas,” the state news agency WAM reported. It said the men had tried to “recruit members to join al-Nusra Front that is fighting the Syrian government” and had raised money that they “sent to al-Nusra.”
The two other defendants were accused of running a website promoting al-Qaida’s ideology and aimed at recruiting fighters “to execute terror acts outside the country,” WAM said. ■