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Trial of five activists a complete sham, says coalition of rights groups

As a verdict draws near for five activists charged with "publicly insulting" United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) officials in an Internet forum, IFEX members and partners have joined forces to raise indignation about the unfair trial and once again call for the activists' release. The coalition of seven groups, including IFEX members the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Human Rights Watch and Index on Censorship, is also deeply concerned by reports of threats against the activists, their families and lawyers.

Closing arguments were made on 23 October and a decision is expected on 27 November, says the coalition, noting that the defendants could face up to five years in prison. Those charged are Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist and university lecturer; Ahmed Mansoor, a blogger and advisory member of the Board of Human Rights Watch who also works with ANHRI; and political reform advocates Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq and Hassan Ali al-Khamis. They have been detained since April and have pledged to go on hunger strike next week.

The charges stem from posts on online forum UAE Hewar that criticised government policies, the groups report. However, the forum was banned at the time so one of the key arguments of the defence lawyers is that few people would have seen the posts. Mansoor faces additional charges of inciting demonstrations and crime because he publicly supported a petition demanding democratic elections for the Federal National Council, which has legislative powers.

To monitor the trial and advocate for fairness, the three IFEX members formed a coalition with Amnesty International, Al Karama (Dignity), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Front Line Defenders. In addition to representatives of several of the groups, civil liberties lawyer Jennie Pasquarella observed the trial at Abu Dhabi's Supreme Court on behalf of the coalition and has written a report detailing its "flagrant due process flaws."She was able to gain access to the court after the first four court sessions were held in secret.

The defendants have been denied a myriad of other legal rights, including the right to review the evidence and charges against them, the right to cross-examine witnesses, and the right to hold confidential meetings with their lawyers, the coalition reports. On 2 October, the prosecution gave closing arguments before the defence lawyers had even been given an opportunity to state their case.

Recognising they are being subject to a political trial, all five defendants walked out of the trial on 25 September in protest. According to Pasquarella, the trumped up charges have no basis in international or U.A.E. law.

"This case has been riddled with legal and procedural flaws right from the beginning, which have made it grossly unfair in favour of the prosecution," says Pasquarella. "This case has nothing to do with justice or security but everything to do with snuffing out political dissent and calls for greater democracy."

The five activists have been held in prison since April "for their own safety," in the words of a prosecutor, which the human rights groups maintain is not a permissible reason to jail individuals. Families of the activists told Human Rights Watch that the defendants have been held in solitary confinement and denied medical care.

ANHRI reports the safety claim is especially spurious given that the police and justice system has yet to investigate death threats levelled against the activists by members of U.A.E.'s ruling elites. Nor has anything been done to stop the government's public campaign to smear the activists, especially Mansoor, as national traitors.

Because the activists' alleged crimes are considered a "state security" matter, the Supreme Court is the first and only court to hear the case and the activists have no right of appeal.

While the trial was ongoing, the International Bar Association (IBA) held its annual conference in Dubai from 30 October to 4 November. According to the IBA, the U.A.E.'s security branch threatened to cancel the IBA conference because "its content might precipitate instability in the region." Apart from the trial of the five activists, the Arab Spring has not had much of an impact in the U.A.E.

Supporters of the jailed activists have launched a petition that all those concerned about free expression violations are encouraged to sign the petition here.

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