BEIRUT (AP) — The United Arab Emirates released on Thursday a Lebanese physician after holding him for more than three weeks over a tweet he published years ago, a person familiar with the case said.
The case of Dr. Richard Kharrat came to attention in early April when local media reported that he went missing from his hotel in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the UAE has declined to comment on Kharrat’s case since he was detained in early April during a visit to the oil-rich emirates.
Days after Kharrat’s disappearance, Lebanon’s state news agency quoted Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib as saying that Lebanese authorities are following the case of Kharrat “who is in detention in the United Arab Emirates.”
Lebanese activists have launched a campaign on social media calling for Kharrat’s release.
The person familiar with the case, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter, said the arrest was linked to tweets that Kharrat wrote years ago and were seen offensive to the UAE. In one of the widely circulated tweets, Kharrat poked fun at names of people in the UAE and Lebanon.
Kharrat, a gynecologist, was to return to Beirut around midnight Thursday.
Social media is an often-perilous space in the UAE, an autocratic federation of seven sheikhdoms where the government retains tight control over traditional media and uses courts to prosecute those who express opposition or criticism online.
Earlier this year, the country passed a new, vaguely worded cybercrime law, which rights groups say further restricts online speech and proscribes prison terms for those who use the internet to share, document or report information that could harm the state’s interests, reputation or prestige. It also criminalizes spreading rumors and fake news.
Kharrat's arrest came as relations between Lebanon and the UAE have been tense for months.
The UAE withdrew its diplomats from Beirut in October after Saudi Arabia did so in response to comments by a Cabinet minister at the time who criticized the war by the Saudi-led coalition on Yemen. The minister, George Kordahi, later resigned and the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait returned to Lebanon earlier this month. The UAE ambassador still has not returned to Beirut.