Waedad Belaila, the wife of Nasser bin Ghaith, one of the defendants charged with insulting the Gulf country's leadership, speaks to reporters after a court hearing in Abu Dhabi on October 2, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

(Abu Dhabi) – The families of five activists jailed six months ago for “publicly insulting” United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials made a joint plea on October 9, 2011, to the country’s rulers to stop the activists’ trial and release them, Human Rights Watch said today.

The letter to the President and Vice-President of the UAE and to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi contends that the judiciary, prosecution, and prison officials have violated 20 human rights standards in their treatment of the accused. These include the requirements for a speedy and fair trial, the presumption of innocence, the right of appeal, and the right to carry out adequate questioning of prosecution witnesses and to prepare and present a proper defense. Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have said that the trial has been marked by serious procedural flaws and has violated the most basic defense rights of the accused.

“Every moment that these men spend behind bars simply for exercising their right to free speech is a miscarriage of justice,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The real insult to the Emirati government is not anything these men said, but the fact that the country’s leaders have jailed them for it.”

Freedom of speech is guaranteed under the UAE's constitution and is well established under international human rights law.

The plea by the families says that authorities have held the defendants in solitary confinement for extended periods, prevented them from obtaining adequate medical care and proper treatment, and held them under conditions worse than those for convicted felons, depriving them of natural light, recreation time, and exercise.

The families say that when authorities arrested the men, they were held incommunicado for days without access to a lawyer or their families. They say that the authorities have done nothing to stop a campaign of intimidation, including death threats, against the defendants and one of their lawyers.

“The families of the detainees have suffered for more than 180 days the absence of their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers, held behind bars,” said the plea from the families. “The detainees have also suffered the bitterness of prison, and the violation of their basic right to have a fair trial.”

The five activists, who were arrested in April and whose trial opened on June 14, are: Ahmed Mansoor, an engineer and blogger; Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist, university lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi and an advocate for political reform; and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis. The five are charged under article 176 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to publicly insult top officials.

Because the case is being prosecuted under state security procedures, the Federal Supreme Court is hearing the charges in the first instance, affording no right of appeal. The court has not allowed the defendants to review the evidence and charges against them, including evidence collected by the state security prosecution during the investigative period. The court did not allow defense lawyers to cross-examine one prosecution witness and did not provide sufficient time to cross-examine others.

Without explanation, the authorities closed the first four hearings of the trial to the public, journalists, international observers, and the families of the accused. On multiple occasions, the court has either denied or failed to rule on motions to release the defendants on bail, even though none of the defendants are charged with a violent offense, and authorities have not suggested that the defendants pose a flight risk. The authorities have not investigated the threats against the families and the defendants or prosecuted those responsible.

On October 1, a statement from bin Ghaith was leaked from al Wathba prison, describing similar concerns. Bin Ghaith explained in the statement that he and the other defendants had decided to boycott the October 2 hearing:

I have reached an unshakeable conviction that this court, measured against international norms of justice, is merely a farce and facade meant to legitimize and make credible verdicts and penalties that may have already been decided. It is purely an attempt to punish me and those with me for our political opinions and our stances on certain national issues. Thus, I refuse to play the role written for me or to participate in this trial that does not rise to the standards of a fair trial.

The UAE penal code allows the government to jail people simply for expressing their peaceful views, in contravention of clear international human rights guarantees for free speech. Article 176 of the penal code permits a sentence of up to five years in prison for “whoever publicly insults the State President, its flag or national emblem.” Article 8 widens the application of the provision to include the vice president, members of the Supreme Council of the Federation, and others.

The five are charged under article 176 for using the online political forum UAE Hewar. None of the messages allegedly posted by the accused to the banned site do more than criticize government policy or political leaders, said four human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, that have reviewed the posts. There is no evidence that the men used or incited violence in the course of their political activities.

Mansoor faces additional charges of inciting others to break the law, calling for an election boycott, and calling for demonstrations. In March, shortly before his arrest, he publicly supported a petition signed by more than 130 people advocating universal, direct elections for the Federal National Council (FNC), a government advisory board, and legislative powers for the council.

A letter smuggled out of prison in late August signed by four of the activists said that procedural flaws have led them to be “certain that we have not and will not obtain a fair trial, which every defendant deserves.” In the letter, the activists demanded that the court cease trying them in secret and allow observers and citizens to attend the hearings. They also urged the court to release them on bail, allow them to review the charge sheet against them, and allow their lawyers to question prosecution witnesses.

After the letter’s release, bin Ghaith, one of the signatories, complained that prison authorities encouraged other inmates to harass him. After he had an altercation with another prisoner, prison authorities chained him in solitary confinement in a cell without air conditioning, despite the 40-degree Celsius heat.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) holds that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression... to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” While the UAE is not a party to the ICCPR, it constitutes an authoritative source and guideline reflecting international best practice. Accepted international standards only allow content-based restrictions in extremely narrow circumstances, such as cases of slander or libel against private individuals or speech that threatens national security.

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.” Article 13(2) of the Charter also requires that hearings be “public other than [except] in exceptional cases where the interests of justice so require in a democratic society which respects freedom and human rights.”

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.