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(New York) - The criminal investigation of five detained activists for "opposing the government" and "insulting" top officials is a serious setback for human rights in the United Arab Emirates, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the UAE government to immediately free Ahmed Mansoor and the four other activists and end the ongoing crackdown down on peaceful dissent.

"The UAE is punishing peaceful criticism by investigating activists for 'opposing the government,'" said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This shows how far the UAE has to go to become a rights-respecting country. All those being detained for speaking out against abuses should be immediately released."

Attorney General Salim Saeed Kubaish said on April 25, 2011, that the five detainees were in "preventative custody" for "instigation, breaking laws and perpetrating acts that pose threat to state security, undermining the public order, opposing the government system, and insulting the President, the Vice President and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi."

Authorities arrested Mansoor on April 8 and are holding him at the Al Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi. Mansoor has been a vocal proponent of a petition submitted in March to UAE authorities demanding democratic reform. Before his arrest he gave numerous television and other media interviews on the issue. Mansoor is a member of Human Rights Watch's Middle East advisory committee.

On April 10, security forces detained Nasser bin Ghaith, an economics lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris' Sorbonne University, who has criticized UAE authorities for failing to undertake significant political reforms. Authorities have also arrested three other online activists: Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis, and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq.

The arrests are part of a crackdown on peaceful dissent by the UAE government that has also targeted civil society, Human Rights Watch said. On April 21, the social affairs minister, Mariam Mohammed Khalfan Al-Roumi, signed a decree dissolving the elected board of directors of the Jurist Association, one of the country's leading civil society groups, and replaced it with state appointees. On April 6, the Jurist Association, along with three other nongovernmental organizations, had signed a petition in favor of political reforms.

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides that countries should "take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action" as a result of their participation in human rights activity.

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