A human rights group has called on authorities in the United Arab Emirates to reverse their decision to expel dozens of Syrian expatriates who took part in a peaceful protest in Dubai.

An estimated 2,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Syrian consulate in Dubai on February 10 to protest against the brutal crackdown against opposition members being carried out by the Assad regime in Syria. About 50 have since been forced to leave the country, activists and Syrian community leaders in the UAE told Human Rights Watch.

“The UAE calls on Syrian President Assad to respect the right of peaceful protesters, yet it is expelling Syrians from its country for exercising this basic right,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Political demonstrations are rarely permitted in the UAE.

A UAE government official told the Financial Times that about 30 Syrians were asked to leave the country because of “other activities” they were involved in and not specifically for taking part in the protest. The official declined to elaborate on what these activities were.

Authorities tolerated the protest, despite it lacking the permission from the government, the official said, stressing that the UAE has the right to determine whether foreigners are permitted to reside within its borders.

All agree the protest was peaceful and dispersed amicably after a request from the police. It was held as the Syrian army was in the first week of its now month-long assault on the city of Homs, which David Cameron, UK prime minister, described on Friday as “a scene of medieval barbarity”.

In the weeks after the protest, hundreds of Syrians who took part were summoned for questioning by UAE security officials and asked to sign guarantees to not participate in future demonstrations, according to testimonies from the protesters collected by Human Rights Watch.

“I stayed at the police station for seven hours, from 6pm until 12:30am,” one of those questioned told the rights group. “I wrote down on a piece of paper ‘I will not participate in protests that I was invited to. I should always report about any gathering taking place to the security forces.’ I signed the pledge.”

Those expelled were not sent home to Syria, the UAE official said, and were given a “flexible” deadline for when they had to leave the country. Some told Human Rights Watch that they were given fewer than 10 days to leave after having their residency permits cancelled.

The controversy over the expulsions highlights the challenge faced by the UAE and other Gulf states, who are supporting the Syrian opposition’s demands for political change while maintaining a strict ban on political demonstrations at home.

During the Libyan uprising, which the UAE supported with diplomatic and military assistance, demonstrations were held by Libyan expatriates in Dubai, although there have been no reports of those protesters facing similar repercussions.

Another Syrian protester told Human Rights Watch that after having his residency permit cancelled, he was forced to leave his family who reside in the country and take the bus from the UAE.

“I was born in the UAE and my father worked there even before I was born,” he said. “I live with my family and brother. We both have respectable jobs and we never violated any law,” he said.

“It is very hard on me and my family that I have to leave, especially since I can’t go back to Syria. I am afraid if I speak publicly about my case my parents will be deported as well, even though they were not at the protest.”

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