I had been to Dubai many times to visit my family with no issues. So when plainclothes Emirati officers confronted me outside a restaurant there on Nov. 6, 2022, in front of my distraught family, and forcibly lead me to their unmarked car, I knew straight away that the reasons were political. A few weeks earlier, I had posted a YouTube video calling for Egyptians to use the occasion of the annual United Nations climate conference, COP27, which was held in Sharm El Sheikh, to protest against the Egyptian regime’s mass violations of human rights and the frightening increase in the cost of living. As a U.S.-Egyptian dual citizen posting from the United States, I didn’t think I had anything to fear. I was wrong.
During my detention in the United Arab Emirates, the police told me that an Interpol “red notice” – basically a fugitive alert – had been issued against me based on an Egyptian request. Then, the narrative changed. By late November, Interpol denied the existence of a red notice against me, and the UAE prosecutor’s office instead stated that the warrant for my arrest had come from the Arab Interior Ministers Council (AIMC).
The AIMC, created in 1982, is essentially the Arab League’s network of law enforcement agencies that aid each other by apprehending individuals on their territory at the request of other members. The AIMC’s governing laws have been criticized for a total lack of due process safeguards that might prevent, or at least restrain, its use as a tool of political repression. A recent letter from a group of U.N. experts notes that the AIMC’s extradition frameworks appear to “infringe on fundamental human rights and freedoms” and that the “red notices do not appear to comply with the obligations of Member States under international law, in particular with principles of non-refoulement, non-discrimination, due diligence and fair trial and may implicate the duty to protect the rights to freedom of opinion and expression.” The experts further observe that “States do not appear to exercise due diligence in assessing the political nature of the charges brought against individuals, and no individual risk assessment appears to be either envisaged or undertaken.”
For 46 days, I was detained by the Emiratis with the threat of extradition to Egypt, where I would have immediately joined the horde of an estimated 60,000 political prisoners and likely subjected to the daily torture and inhumane treatment they endure. If extradited, I feared possible execution or death in detention. Rights groups have estimated that more than 1,000 people have died in Egyptian custody since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in a military coup in 2013, and the U.S. State Department noted a local monitoring group’s report that 52 prisoners and detainees died as a result of abuse or medical neglect in 2022 alone. “The government failed to consistently punish or prosecute officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government, including for Corruption,” according to the State Department’s report.
Fortunately in my case, my ordeal ended suddenly, thanks to the incredible efforts of my fiancée and my friends who mounted an amazing campaign to pressure the UAE government to release me back to the United States just after Christmas. Unfortunately, not everyone with an AIMC arrest warrant against them is so lucky. In particular, the stories of Khalaf al-Romaithi, a Turkish-Emirati citizen, and Hassan al-Rabea, a Saudi citizen illustrate just how nefarious the AIMC can be.
Al-Romaithi had been living in exile in Istanbul for the past 10 years to avoid a 15-year prison sentence imposed in absentia during the infamous “UAE94” mass trial of 94 critics of the Emirati government. He was arrested on May 7 at Amman Airport in Jordan and presented with an AIMC extradition request from the UAE. Despite a court hearing set for May 16, his lawyers lost track of him on May 9. A week later, the Emirati state news agency announced that al-Romaithi had been “received” from Jordanian authorities.
Al-Rabea was extradited in February 2023 by Moroccan authorities to Saudi Arabia under an AIMC extradition request by the Saudi regime. They dubiously accused al-Rabea of collaboration with terrorists. Al-Rabea’s Shia family has been subjected to political persecution for years and it is feared that al-Rabea might have been subjected to torture or other ill-treatment since Morocco deported him.
In each case – mine included – domestic legal procedures, generally accepted international standards for due process, and legal instruments that reflect customary international law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been trampled on by the extraditing countries. By deporting al-Romaithi to the UAE, his lawyer has alleged, authorities “have violated the constitution of Jordan,” which prohibits extradition of “political refugees” based on “their political beliefs or for their defence of liberty.” Also, Morocco’s decision to deport al-Rabea to Saudi Arabia may violate Article 721 of the Moroccan Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that “extraditions shall not be granted when there are substantial grounds for believing that an extradition request… has in fact been made for the purpose of prosecuting or punishing a person on the grounds of his or her race, religion, nationality or political opinion.”
The AIMC, and in my case, Interpol, have been actively used by undemocratic States to silence political opponents. On July 12, at a discussion about the AIMC’s threat to political opponents held as a side event during the 53rd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, I, along with other victims’ lawyers and human rights defenders, called on the U.N. and others in the international community to act. As the only known individual to escape the AIMC’s political repression, I have a duty to fight back. For this reason, on July 20, I filed a complaint against Interpol, the AIMC, and others, in federal court in Washington, D.C. under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
We cannot continue to let these organizations, which could have legitimate purposes if properly used, be weaponized against human rights. Although Interpol has some measures in place that should prevent its political misuse, it continues to be the subject of substantial criticism. How many Russian and Chinese dissidents have found themselves on the red notice list? As for the AIMC, it can too easily be used as a tool of transnational repression, which in itself is a form of terrorism conducted by non-democratic States against citizens who choose freedom over silence.
The AIMC needs urgent reforms such as an understanding of – and respect for — basic human rights standards and transparency. It needs appeal mechanisms and compliance checks on arrest requests to prevent abuse of this coordination mechanism for political repression.
Reforming such a body can start by applying legal safeguards. AIMC members should have to show specific evidence of an alleged crime in order to detain expats, tourists or dual citizens, and the default should be to rely on Interpol rather than the AIMC.
If these practices are not stopped immediately, repressive members of the Arab League might decide to target the citizens of non-Arab League countries, such as human rights defenders or anyone who has raised dissenting opinions about what is going on in one of these countries. My U.S. passport was barely enough to protect me. Without this reform, human rights defenders could be at risk of arrest in 22 countries without even knowing it, no one is safe from the reach of the AIMC.