The UAE’s bizarre, political trial of 94 activists

The leader of the alleged plot, Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassimi, is the cousin of the ruler and a member of one of the UAE’s seven ruling families.

Note: This article is from the Guardian.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The UAE’s bizarre, political trial of 94 activists” was written by David Hearst, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 6th March 2013 09.00 UTC

A strange trial has opened in Abu Dhabi. For most of the past seven months, up to 70 of the 94 activists accused of plotting to overthrow the government of the United Arab Emirates have been held in secret detention.

It was only after their families threatened a sit-in that their relatives were brought to the court blindfolded, some showing obvious signs of torture, malnutrition and mistreatment. Some pleaded with their jailers to “give them the tablets”. All were terrified to speak.

The evidence against them is also a mystery. The state prosecutor’s file, which was only sent to the court a few days before the trial began, relies heavily on the forced confessions of two of the accused. On the first day, one of them, Ahmed Ghaith al-Suwaidi, had a dramatic change of heart. Denying the charges, he pleaded with the court to protect his family: “I know that what I am going to say may cost me my life, but I deny the charges and I ask the court to protect my life and the life of my family,” he said, according to witnesses.

The accused come from all walks of Emirati life. The leader of the alleged plot, Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassimi, is the cousin of the ruler and a member of one of the UAE’s seven ruling families. There are three judges, two human rights defenders, lawyers, teachers, academics as well as students. The social spread of the group is at least consistent with the sweeping nature of the charge. The state hopes to convince the court that the members of the group were plotting to form nothing less than a parallel government.

Announcing the trial in January, the attorney general, Salem Saeed Kubaish, claimed that the group had sought to infiltrate schools, universities and ministries. Its “unannounced aims were to seize power and confront the main principles on which the ruling system is based”, he said. The prosecutor claims that this secret society put its seditious purpose down on paper, but bizarrely admits that these “documents” have now been destroyed.

The trial is overtly political. At the very outset Dubai’s voluble chief of police Dhahi Khalfan warned that all Gulf states faced an existential threat in the form of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The group from which most, but by no means all of the defendants come, al-Islah (which means reform), does not conceal its ideological sympathies with Egypt’s ruling Islamist group.

Ahmed al-Nuaimi, a leader of al-Islah, whose brother Khaled is one of the 94, said: “Egypt is a republic where you can have established parties. But we are Bedouin and we agree to a ruling family leading the country. All we are saying is that it has to be done under a democratic system.” Many other relatives of the accused also claim loyalty to al Nahayan, Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.

To make its political demands crystal clear, al-Islah issued a second petition (the first kicked off the initial wave of arrests) on the eve of the trial. It grounded its demands in the UAE’s constitution and the aims of the country’s founding fathers. Those demands are not unusual in a post-Arab spring world – they want all members of the UAE’s parliament, the Federal National Council, to be elected and to give that body full legislative and regulatory powers.

They call for full judicial independence, the retreat of the security state and standard human rights.

For his democratic pains, Khaled al Nuaimi has lost 25kg. His back is now curved after being kept in isolation in a freezing cell.

The UAE, often described as one of the Gulf’s most stable states, is acutely sensitive to its international image as a modern, advanced state. It acceded to the UN convention against torture in July last year, but refuses to allow the UN committee to investigate individual allegations of torture. The UAE government also made a reservation to the convention stating that “pain and suffering arising from lawful sanctions” did not, in its view, amount to torture. The trial itself was announced on the eve of a UN human rights review.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International will have much to say to that review. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for HRW, feared the current trial would be a mockery of justice. Already the judicial process has raised serious concerns, including limiting access to lawyers and withholding key documents concerning charges and the evidence against them, she said.

None of which will stop the UAE being viewed as a key western Gulf partner. In December the UAE signed up for 60 Eurofighter Typhoon jets from BAE after a visit by David Cameron. The UAE has signed 17 defence contracts for US-built drones worth .42bn. It is France’s biggest arms export destination. British, French, US and even Turkish unqualified support for a regime cracking down so crudely on democracy activists is, however, another uncomfortable example of how key western powers in the Middle East bestride the fence that divides the Arab world after its revolution.

They support free elections in Egypt and Tunisia, and yet maintain the closest of military and security relationships with a government in the UAE that does the opposite. I suppose it’s called keeping all their options open, but in this trial at least, they overtly conflict.

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