Ninety-four people in Abu Dhabi went on trial Monday, charged with plotting to overthrow the government of the United Arab Emirates.
Rights groups, who, along with international media, were prohibited from entering the court, are voicing concern over the fairness of the proceedings, pointing to a number of alleged irregularities.
UAE authorities allege the suspects, including two prominent human rights lawyers, doctors, academics and student leaders who were arrested over the last year, formed a secret network with links to the Muslim Brotherhood that aimed to carry out a coup and transform the Gulf state’s relatively liberal society into a strict Islamist regime.
Most of the defendants are believed to be part of the local Islamist group al-Islah, which advocates a greater political voice for Emirati citizens.
According to rights groups, many of the accused, both men and women, have been denied due process, and some have already been imprisoned for nearly a year.
Rori Donaghy of the Britain-based Emirates Center for Human Rights says there is strong evidence that many defendants were subjected to torture, a charge UAE officials deny.
"We are absolutely certain that the prisoners have suffered from severe maltreatment while in custody," he said.
After the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the UAE sentenced five dissidents to prison after they campaigned for a more representative government. They were later pardoned by the president.
Theodore Karasik, the director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, says the UAE remains wary of regional unrest spreading to its shores.
"What’s important to understand is that the regional environment is creating hostile forces to many different countries in the region, and if the UAE authorities are seeing that there is any kind of sympathy for hostile forces, they’re going to act against them," he said.
The UAE is a strong American ally in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to visit the capital, Abu Dhabi, this week as part of his first foreign tour as America's top diplomat.