The Cable

Exclusive: UAE detains foreign NGO workers

In an escalation of the United Arab Emirates' crackdown on foreign NGOs, the UAE government has detained foreign employees of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and is preventing at least one of them from leaving the country.

Late Wednesday, the director of NDI's Dubai office, Patricia Davis, an American, and her deputy director Slobodon Milic, a Serbian national, were stopped at the Dubai airport by UAE government authorities as they tried to leave the country, according to three sources briefed on the incident. Davis was eventually allowed to leave the UAE, but Milic was not. He was detained by authorities, and subsequently released but is still barred from leaving the UAE. The UAE government has also notified NDI that they plan to file criminal indictments against foreign NGO workers in the UAE for foreign interference in political affairs, the sources said.

"We understand that the deputy director for NDI in the UAE was briefly detained and then released. We are seeking more information from the government of the UAE on the matter," a State Department official told The Cable. "As the Secretary has said many times, we believe NGOs play a valuable and legitimate role in a country's political and economic development.  They should be able to operate consistent with regulations and standards and without constraints."

"We will continue to support civil society in the UAE and across the region.  NDI is a respected organization that has been working across the region and beyond to promote civil society development and democratic values.  The State Department is a firm supporter of NDI's activities," the official said.

The move mirrors the actions taken by the Egyptian government over the past three months, which included barring over a dozen foreign workers from leaving Egypt -- including Americans working for NDI, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House -- and subsequently indicting them on criminal charges.

The U.S. government paid $5 million in "bail" money to secure the March 1 release of American NGO workers trapped in Egypt, including Sam LaHood, the Cairo director of the IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then waived congressional restrictions on the $1.5 billion of annual U.S. aid to Egypt, which would have required that the State Department certify that Egypt was moving toward democracy and upholding civil rights.

Several of the American NGO workers who were indicted by the Egyptian government were not in Egypt at the time, and the National Journal reported Wednesday that the Egyptian government has asked Interpol to issue international arrest warrants for those NGO workers. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is trying to convince Interpol to reject those requests.

The UAE government shut down and revoked the license of the NDI office in Dubai last week, just days before Clinton visited the region and raised the issue in a meeting with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

"We very much regret it," Clinton said after the meeting. "We are as you know, as anyone who has visited the United States, strong believers in a vibrant civil society ... I expect our discussions on this issue to continue."

A U.S. congressional staff delegation has been in the UAE this week as well, and has been raising the NDI issue with both UAE and American officials on the ground. One congressional staffer in Dubai told The Cable Wednesday that UAE officials argued to the staff delegation that NDI was operating without a license, had no legal right to be operating in UAE, and was writing things that weren't true.

NDI Middle East Director Les Campbell said last week that his organization has no programs in the UAE, and the office "was simply a regional hub which supported programmes in places like Qatar and Kuwait."

The congressional staffers pressed the UAE officials to comment on the rumors that the UAE government was acting on behalf of the Saudi government, which is said to object to NDI's programs for Saudi women. But the UAE officials denied any knowledge of Saudi interference or pressure to the congressional staffers.

The staffer also said U.S. Ambassador to the UAE Michael Corbin downplayed the UAE government's actions in his meeting with the congressional delegation.

"Even more troublesome was [the U.S.] ambassador's statement in response to questions we raised about the shutdown in a meeting on Tuesday. He essentially suggested that it wasn't that big of a deal since NDI doesn't do any work in the UAE," the staffer said. "Moreover, he seemed to sympathize with their concerns given the changing situation in the Middle East and he characterized work that organizations like NDI do as ‘fomenting' political change."

Officials at NDI's Washington office and the UAE embassy in Washington declined to comment.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

State Dept: Of course we know where Hafiz Mohammad Saeed is

The State Department went to lengths today to explain why it issued a $10 million bounty for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founder Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, only to have Saeed appear in public and mock the United States for it.

On Monday, Saeed became only the fifth wanted criminal to warrant the top-dollar bounty in the State Department's Rewards for Justice Program. "Saeed is suspected of masterminding numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 166 people, including six American citizens," the State Department says in its reward notice.

In response, Saeed held a Wednesday press conference in Pakistan to make fun of the bounty.

"I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me," he said. "I will be in Lahore tomorrow. America can contact me whenever it wants to."

At Wednesday State Department press briefing, Spokesman Mark Toner explained that of course the U.S. government knows where Saeed is ... and that wasn't the point of the bounty.

"Just to clarify, the $10 million is for information not about his location but information that leads to an arrest or conviction. And this is information that could withstand judicial scrutiny. So I think what's important here is we're not seeking this guy's location," Toner said. "We all know where he is. Every journalist in Pakistan and in the region knows how to find him. But we're looking for information that can be usable to convict him in a court of law."

Reporters at the briefing pointed out that Saeed has already been indicted in India so presumably the Indians have plenty of evidence to convict him.

"Look, I think we're trying to, you know, get information that can be used to put this gentleman behind bars," Toner said. "There is information, there's intelligence that, you know, is not necessarily usable in a court of law."

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it needed "concrete evidence" before the Pakistani government would move to arrest Saeed. Toner said such evidence is exactly what the bounty is meant to elicit and should not be an irritant in the already troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

"This is about a process in and of itself, separate and apart from our ongoing bilateral relations with Pakistan," he said.

Outside experts doubt that this separation is either clear or tenable.

"This adds more fire to a relationship that can be called severely dysfunctional," said Bruce Riedel, a former senior National Security Council official now at the Brookings Institution. "I assume the administration believes this bounty will put more pressure on the government of Pakistan to do something about it. It ratchets up the pressure on LeT a little bit. It ratchets up the pressure on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship more."

Saeed deserved the bounty due to his role in the 2008 Mumbai bombings and various other terrorist activities, Reidel said, and the bounty is part of a steady stream of actions against Saeed that included a U.N. special designation in 2008 and a Treasury Department sanctions designation in 2010.

The Pakistani government isn't likely to hand over Saeed any time soon, however, so the administration has added yet another point of contention to an already contentious relationship.

"The next time the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence travels to Washington, the U.S. official now have the obligation to raise this will them. I hope the administration has a plan for what happens when the Pakistanis say no," Riedel said, referring to Pakistan's top intelligence agency, the ISI.

The State Department maintains that the timing of the bounty, more than three and a half years after the Mumbai attack, was simply the result of the bureaucratic process. Riedel isn't so sure. He pointed out that new information about Saeed's links to al Qaeda was discovered in the material retrieved from Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad hideout.

Saeed's ties to the al Qaeda leader go back decades. Bin Laden helped fund the creation of LeT in the 1980s. On the Friday after bin Laden was killed, Saeed gave a very public eulogy praising him.

"If the administration is going to be putting out more of the Abbottabad material, if one of the things they found was more linkage between Saeed and bin Laden, it's quite plausible and that may have been the spark that pushed them over the edge regarding the bounty," Riedel said. "Like everybody else, I'm waiting to see what their plan is for the day after."

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images