(Beirut) - The United Arab Emirates attorney general should immediately drop all charges against five pro-democracy activists to halt their trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The charges of "humiliating" top officials relate solely to the defendants' peaceful use of speech to criticize the UAE government and therefore violate their freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. UAE authorities should release the activists unconditionally and without delay.
The five defendants, who include a leading human rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor, and a university lecturer, Nasser bin Ghaith, pled not guilty on June 14, 2011, during a closed-door hearing in Abu Dhabi's Federal Supreme Court. The trial follows a campaign of harassment against the activists after they and dozens of other UAE nationals signed a petition published on March 9 that sought constitutional and parliamentary changes in the Emirates and free elections in which all citizens could participate.
"UAE rulers are prosecuting these activists solely for advocating democratic reforms," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should end this shameful crackdown on peaceful dissent."
The five activists have been detained and denied bail since early April. Local news reports said that dozens of pro-government protesters holding banners and flags gathered outside the courtroom on June 14 and shouted slogans condemning the activists. The next hearing is scheduled for July 18.
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 the petition. 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 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. The three other detained online activists are Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis, and Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq.
In early June, UAE authorities charged the five detainees under article 176 of the Penal Code, which permits a sentence of up to five years in prison for "whoever publicly humiliates the State President, its flag or national emblem." Article 8 of the code widens the application of the provision to include the vice president, members of the Supreme Council of the Federation, and others. The charges came after Attorney General Salim Saeed Kubaish said on April 25 that the five detainees were in "preventive custody" for "instigation, breaking laws and perpetrating acts that pose a 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."
In the weeks following the arrests, the UAE expanded its crackdown on civil society by dissolving the elected board of directors of both the Jurist Association and the Teachers' Association. The decrees, signed by Social Affairs Minister Mariam Mohammed Khalfan Al Roumi, dismissed the boards and replaced their members with state appointees. Both associations, along with two other nongovernmental organizations, had signed a public appeal calling for greater democracy in the country on April 6.
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.
Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which has been ratified by the UAE, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to impart news to others by any means. The only restrictions allowed on the practice of this right are those imposed for "respect for the rights of others, their reputation, or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals."