Portrait of Ahmed Mansoor

Ahmed Mansoor: the poet who spoke truth to power and paid a heavy price

by Rebecca White

“The only way to counter repression is by revealing it. And yes, there is always that possibility that I will go back to jail. But if [activists] do not talk, who will?”

This quote is taken from a short film of Ahmed Mansoor back in 2015. A prominent Emirati human rights defender for over a decade, he knows that openly criticizing his government comes at a heavy price.

True to his words, Ahmed Mansoor did not stay silent, and, just two years later in 2017, he did go back to jail. He was the last person speaking openly about human rights in the United Arab Emirates.

Baseless charges, unfair trial

On October 22nd, Ahmed marked his 54th birthday — the seventh birthday in a row that he has spent in al-Sadr prison, Abu Dhabi. He’s serving a ten-year sentence following an unfair trial. Kept in solitary confinement, he’s denied a bed, books, and basic hygiene items. Charges against him include “insulting the UAE and its symbols” and relate to activities such as posting on social media. That’s right — in the UAE even mild criticism of the government is strictly forbidden and criminalized.  The UAE authorities have many tools at their disposal to crush dissent and free expression, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

Surveillance as a tool of repression

Ahmed Mansoor has been the victim of several of these interconnected tactics of repression, which include censorship, arbitrary detention, imprisonment and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, as well as physical and digital surveillance. Back in 2011 and 2012 respectively, he was targeted with spyware from FinFisher and Hacking Team. Prior to his last arrest in 2017, Ahmed was targeted by Pegasus spyware which, according to its developer NSO Group, is only sold to governments. Highly invasive spyware like Pegasus allows complete access to the victim’s device. It can do everything the user can do, and more. As Ahmed said, “your phone is not a phone any more, it’s a tracking device”. But even repeated attacks by sophisticated surveillance technologies didn’t deter him from speaking out:

“There is no way that we can measure the public opinion here [in the UAE] because there is no free will. People are afraid to talk. At the same time, …we are not going to stop, we have to continue […] Removing one stone from the mountain is better than keeping the mountain as it is…”

Poetry as a form of resistance

As well as being an activist, blogger, engineer, and father, Ahmed is a poet. In fact, it was writing poetry that first made him realize the value of freedom of expression.

“I’d been writing in almost all the newspapers in the UAE about literature, and specifically about poetry. That’s where the value of freedom of expression became of great importance for me, and I started my involvement in human rights.”

Of course, there is a long history of poets speaking truth to power. For centuries, all around the world, poetry has been used as a form of activism and a catalyst for change. Poetry as protest — to oppose slavery, war, racial oppression and injustice of all kinds. Poetry as resistance, as empowerment or as testimony. It’s been used as a rallying cry too — for hope, peace, equality, and human rights. 

In a time when language is massaged and manipulated, where we’re fed dis- and misinformation and reactive hot-takes, the voice of the poet is more important than ever. Every word is deliberate, chosen carefully from all the other words at the poet’s disposal. Every word has a purpose.

In prison, Ahmed’s reading glasses and writing materials have been taken away. He cannot commit new poems to paper. But still, his work — his art and his activism — endures.

In his poem ‘Final Choice’, Ahmed writes:

“…This time, I swear
I won’t utter a word, or move
I will stay the way I am
until you turn to look…”

Despite the UAE’s sustained assault on human rights, and ongoing arbitrary detention of Ahmed Mansoor and other peaceful dissidents, we will not look away. Stone by stone, word by word, we will keep demanding justice.

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