As an Economist headline put it, it did not take long for the UAE to "get twitchy about democracy". In January 2010, authorities had blocked all access to UAEhewar.net, the site Ahmed Mansoor had started in 2009. In April 2011, authorities arrested Mansoor – as well as economist and Sorbonne Abu Dhabi lecturer Nasser Bin Ghaith and three others collectively known as the "UAE 5" – in connection with the petition effort.

That same month, authorities shut down the Teachersʹ Association and the Juristsʹ Association, among the countryʹs oldest civil society institutions, after they issued a joint statement "appealing for greater democracy". The trial of the UAE 5 on charges of "publicly insulting" UAE officials was rife with fair-trial violations and concluded on 27 November with guilty verdicts.

Mansoor received a three-year sentence, the others two years each. The next day, Sheikh Khalifa commuted their sentences but did not expunge the criminal convictions, which left them unable to obtain the "certificate of good conduct" necessary for securing employment and other civic necessities such as a marriage licence.

Mansoor was never able to recover his passport, effectively banning him from travel. He continued to communicate information about arrests and trials of other rights activists and peaceful dissidents to organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights as the government widened and intensified its campaign to snuff out all manner of political dissent. One sophisticated attack by hackers targeting him in 2014 appeared to be so well financed that Citizenlab investigators at the University of Toronto dubbed him the "million dollar dissident".

Cybercrime legislation destroys freedom of speech

In November 2012, Sheikh Khalifa issued Federal Legal Decree No. 5/2012 on combatting cybercrimes. Article 29 – the basis for Mansoorʹs 2018 conviction – made it a crime to use information technology "with the intent of deriding or harming the reputation, stature, or status of the state, any of its institutions, its president or vice president, the rulers of the emirates, their crown princes or their deputies, the state flag, national safety, its motto, its national anthem, or its symbols."

Despite the harassment directed against him, Mansoor continued to speak out on social media about the intensifying rights violations in the UAE, and he was often the sole source of reliable information about arrests and trials.

There was plenty to report: starting in late March 2012, security forces arrested scores of Emiratis for their association with Islah, shorthand for the Reform and Social Guidance Association, which had been a registered NGO in the UAE since 1974.

Many of those detained, including prominent human rights lawyers Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed al-Mansoori, were held in undisclosed locations. (Al-Roken had been one of Ahmed Mansoorʹs lawyers in his 2011 trial, and the presence of Islah members among those who signed the UAE 5 petition likely spurred these arrests.)

Another lawyer, Salim al-Shehhi, was detained when he went to the office of the State Security Prosecutor with the intention of representing al-Roken. Authorities arrested and deported non-Emirati lawyers working for Abdulhameed al-Kumaiti, the last remaining defence lawyer willing to represent those arrested in the Islah crackdown – and who has since left the country.

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