Five political activists on trial in the United Arab Emirates on charges of publicly insulting the country’s leaders refused to appear in court Sunday, saying they believe a guilty verdict has already been decided for them.
The defendants have been in jail since April and have had four hearings behind closed doors. Sunday was the first time the proceedings were open to the public.
According to rights groups, the men were forbidden to review the evidence and charges against them, and their lawyers were not given sufficient time to cross-examine witnesses.
The Emirati nationals are accused of criticizing the government in various ways. A conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison.
One of the accused, prominent blogger Ahmed Mansoor, faces additional charges of inciting others to break the law, advocating an election boycott and promoting demonstrations.
Shortly before his arrest, Mansoor openly supported a petition signed by more than 130 people calling on the UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayid Al-Nahyan, to give more power to the country’s advisory legislative body, the Federal National Council, and allow all Emirati citizens to vote for its members.
On Sunday, a group of international rights organizations reiterated calls for the release of the five activists.
Samer Muscati from Human Rights Watch described the trial as fundamentally unfair. “It is a step backwards for human rights definitely in the UAE, given the due process issues and problems that we’ve seen - the lack of transparency and secrecy and the fact that defendants haven’t had the ability to defend themselves in a fair manner. So, all signs are very troubling," he said.
While the UAE has largely avoided anti-government protests seen in other parts of the Middle East, Jenny Pasquarella, a civil liberties lawyer monitoring the UAE trial, says the threat of unrest worries Emirati leaders. “This case has everything to do with the Arab Spring. These five individuals were unfortunately chosen for the government to make an example to civil society that they are going to take a hard line on any political dissent," she said.
Many UAE citizens have expressed support for the trial, staging pro-government rallies in front of Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court at every hearing.
One of the demonstrators, who asked to be identified only as Thabet, says many Emiratis are highly offended by criticism of their leaders. "They are our fathers, they are the people who took care of us. They are the people who took us from our mud houses to what we have today, so in that sense it was very hurtful. My anger towards Ahmed al Mansoor was the anger I would have towards a brother. He’s part of a family and the head of that family is Sheikh Khalifa," he said.
Abu Dhabi resident Ahmed Jumaa had similar words. “Maybe I will allow you to attack my brother, but I will not accept you to attack my royal family," he said.
Rights groups say the five defendants, their families and their lawyers have received death threats as a result of what they say is an “ongoing campaign of intimidation.” The next hearing is scheduled for October 9. It is unclear when a verdict will be announced.