The United Arab Emirates has "effectively closed the country's remaining forum for free speech" with a decree issued earlier this month that tightened the law on online dissent, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
The US-allied UAE, a Gulf trading and tourism hub and big oil producer, has not seen the serious unrest that has toppled four Arab heads of state since early last year. But it has shown little tolerance of open dissent, and more than 60 members of an Islamist group have been detained since the start of the year.
The decree by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan imposes prison sentences for anyone who derides or caricatures the Gulf Arab country's rulers or state institutions on the web, the state news agency WAM reported on November 12.
"The UAE's cybercrimes decree reflects an attempt to ban even the most tempered criticism," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
"The determination to police and punish online dissent, no matter how mild, is incompatible with the image UAE rulers are trying to promote of a progressive, tolerant nation."
A source close to the UAE government said on Wednesday the decree aimed to address technological advances in communications that could affect the rights and beliefs of people.
"This decree does not restrict freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the UAE constitution," the source said. "The decree represents an extension of legislation to cover a wide variety of potential offences in many fields, including terrorism, human trafficking, money laundering and identity theft."
WAM said the amendments "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".
This included 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.
Social networking sites have enlivened public discourse in the UAE, a major oil exporter and business hub, where state media are tightly controlled and freedom of speech restricted.
People across UAE society, from ruling family members to ministers, government supporters and dissidents, make use of sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
The amendments announced on November 12 cover a wide range of offences, including outlawing the use of the Internet for human trafficking and prostitution.
But they 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," said WAM.
In addition, anyone who uses the Internet "to call for demonstrations, marches and similar activities without a license being obtained in advance from the competent authorities" could also face imprisonment.
Human Rights Watch said the decree's vaguely worded provisions provide a legal basis to prosecute and jail people who use information technology to criticise senior officials, demand political reforms or organise unlicensed demonstrations.
"Although some provisions are aimed at preventing the proliferation of racist or sectarian views online, the principal effect of the law is severe restrictions on the rights to free expression and free association and assembly," the New York-based watchdog said.