Gulf Arab ruler signs off law to gag critics

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THE United Arab Emirates has passed a law threatening to jail anyone who ridicules or caricatures its rulers or institutions online.

The Gulf Arab state escaped the popular uprisings that toppled four Arab heads of state last year, but it is intolerant of dissent and has detained more than 60 members of an Islamist opposition group since the beginning of the year.

Amendments to existing law on internet crime were issued in a decree by president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan.

They “stipulate penalties of imprisonment on any person who creates or runs an electronic website or uses any information technology medium to deride or damage the reputation or stature of the state or any of its institutions,” said a report from its official news agency, WAM.

This includes the president, the vice-president, any of the rulers of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, crown princes, deputy rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols, WAM added.

Social networking sites have enlivened public discourse in the UAE, a major oil exporter and business hub, where state media is tightly controlled and freedom of speech restricted.

People across society, from ruling family members, to ministers, government supporters and dissidents, make use of sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

The amendments cover a wide range of offences, including outlawing the use of the ­internet for human trafficking and prostitution.

But the new rules also include jail terms for “any person publishing any information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures that would pose threats to the security of the state and to its highest interests or violate its public order,” the state news agency reported.

In addition, anyone who uses the internet “to call for demonstrations, marches and similar activities without a licence being obtained in advance from the competent authorities” could also face imprisonment.