The jailing of five human rights activists by a United Arab Emirates court Sunday will leave a nasty stain on the state’s elaborate upcoming 40th independence celebrations — unless the country’s ruler reverses the verdicts, annuls the charges and releases the five before the big day on December 2.
No appeal is permitted and a court observer representing a coalition of free speech groups including Index on Censorship found the case to be “riddled with legal and procedural flaws right from the beginning,” to the advantage of the prosecution.
Index on Censorship is urging the UAE authorities to show its commitment to international legal standards, by releasing these men without delay and appointing an independent review of why and how they came to be prosecuted and punitively sentenced on transparently politicised charges.
The five, all members of a now banned pro-reform online forum, Al-Hewar al-Emirati, were arrested in April after signing an online petition demanding political reforms, including a parliament selected by open elections.
The verdict comes days before the Emirate stages a major celebration to mark the UAE’s national day on December 2, after 30 days of exhibitions, light shows and cultural events.
Nasser bin Gaith, a trade and economics expert who has lectured at the Abu Dhabi college of Paris’ Sorbonne University and online rights activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali Al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq were all sentenced to two years each.
Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist and blogger was jailed for three years.
Index and the members of the coalition believe the aim is to strangle at birth any ‘Arab Spring’ type reformism or change. “Clearly, the government of United Arab Emirates has been trying to stifle any kind of criticism and pro-reform movement amidst Arab Spring in the region,” said Nabeel Rajab, the director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, speaking before the verdict.
Ahmed Mansoor had signed a March 2011 online petition with 132 other Emiratis, calling for direct elections to the advisory body, the Federal National Council, and for it to be turned from an advisory agency into a body with real legislative powers.
Before his arrest, Nasser bin Gaith, had written positively on his blog about the Arab Spring and its impact on economies in the Arab world, pointing out that it can bring bigger transparency, end corruption and bring back Arab professionals to their home countries.
Supported by the IFEX network of free expression groups, the coalition of rights groups called in civil liberties lawyer Jennie Pasquarella of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to monitor the trial process in September and October 2011 and attend the October 2 hearing. Coalition representatives also attended subsequent trial sessions on October 9 and 23.
Pasquarella found that “flagrant due process flaws” essentially denied the five men the right to a fair trial. The defendants have not been able to see all the documents setting out the charges against them and have not — despite repeated requests — had full access to all the evidence against them. They have also not been allowed to hold confidential meetings with their lawyers.
The first four sessions of the trial were held in secret, contravening international standards, with only UAE State Security agents allowed to attend and take notes on the trial. Pasquarella also found that there was no legal basis for the case against the men, saying that the vague laws under which the five were charged do not comply with international and UAE constitutional requirements that allow for freedom of opinion and other expression.
She also criticised the decision to prosecute the case under State Security procedures, which deprives the men of basic due process rights such as the right to appeal.
The government’s aim, she reported before the verdicts, was “to further distort the public’s understanding of this case and to create public confusion about the actual conduct at issue in this case – not state security threats, but rather allegedly insulting statements.”
The seven groups in the coalition are: Al Karama (Dignity), Amnesty International, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Frontline Defenders, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and Index on Censorship.
Some observers have speculated that the activists could receive a presidential pardon as to mark the anniversary. The same day as the five dissidents were jailed, 554 minor criminals were freed, their fines and debts settled by the state as an anniversary gesture.
However the defendants have previously rejected the idea of a pardon and want the charges dropped and the case permanently thrown out.
Rohan Jayasekera is deputy CEO of Index on Censorship