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UAE: Prison Sentence for Activists an Attack on Free Expression

Prosecute Attack on Defendant's Relative Outside Court

Update: On the evening of November 28, UAE authorities released all five activists .

(Abu Dhabi) – A guilty verdict against five activists by the United Arab Emirates’ Federal Supreme Court on November 27, 2011, is an attack on freedom of expression and the result of an unfair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The panel of four foreign judges delivered the verdict in a ten-minute oral statement in court, sentencing Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent UAE reformer, to three years imprisonment and the rest to two years each for publicly insulting UAE authorities. The detainees have no right of appeal in the case.

Outside the court house, a pro-government supporter physically assaulted a family member of one detainee, said Human Rights Watch, which witnessed the assault along with a representative from Alkarama (Dignity), also in Abu Dhabi to monitor the trial.

“Today the Emirati government has shown that its rulers can tolerate no criticism,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Luxury high-rises and international museums or universities can’t whitewash a government that jails citizens who call for peaceful reform.”

The activists, known among their supporters as the “UAE 5,” were arrested in April 2011 and later charged with “publicly insulting” top UAE officials. The five activists, whose trial opened on June 14 in Abu Dhabi, are: Ahmed Mansoor, an engineer and blogger, and a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee; Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist and university lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi; and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis.

The five were charged under article 176 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to publicly insult top officials, and for using the banned online political forum UAE Hewar. Because the case was prosecuted under state security procedures, there is no right of appeal. Human Rights Watch reviewed the messages allegedly posted by the accused, none of which do more than criticize government policy or political leaders. There is no evidence that the men used or incited violence in the course of their political activities.

An international coalition of rights groups, which includes Alkarama, Amnesty International, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Front Line Defenders, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Human Rights Watch, and Index on Censorship, has said that the prosecution of the five men violates guarantees of free speech under the UAE’s constitution as well as international human rights law.

Since November 13, the men have been on a hunger strike to protest violations of their basic rights by the judiciary, prosecution, and prison officials, including what they say was their prolonged detention on politically motivated charges and a patently unfair trial. They are reported to be in poor health, a defense lawyer told Human Rights Watch.

After the verdict announcement, a pro-government supporter prevented a relative of one of the five detainees from speaking to the media outside the courtroom and then physically attacked him, despite the heavy security presence. During the attack, the assailant shouted profanities and threatened vigilantism, saying, “Even if the [detainees] are released from jail, we will put them on trial ourselves.” The assailant then struck the family member about three times in the face, causing bruising.

Police in Khalidiya, Abu Dhabi, said they are investigating the November 27 incident. The attack is the most recent in a campaign of death threats, slander, and intimidation against the activists, their families, and their lawyers that authorities have failed to prosecute. An independent reportonNovember 25 written on behalf of the GCHR with research assistance from Human Rights Watch documented the threats by government sympathizers and the atmosphere of impunity in which they have been made.

“The campaign against these activists and their families has escalated from threats and intimidation to acts of physical violence,” said Whitson. “The UAE authorities invest resources into prosecuting peaceful reformers, but do nothing to investigate and jail those who use violence and intimidation.”

According to the coalition of rights groups, the court violated the activists’ fair trial rights. The court did not allow the defendants to review the evidence and charges against them until six months into the trial. 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 to the public, journalists, international observers, and the families of the accused. On multiple occasions, the court denied or failed to rule on motions to release the defendants on bail, even though none of the defendants were charged with a violent offense, and authorities did not suggest that they pose a flight risk. All four judges on the panel reviewing the case are foreigners. Two are Egyptian, one is Syrian, and one is Sudanese. As foreign judges, they do not have tenure positions on the Court, as do Emirati judges.

The UAE penal code makes the peaceful expression of critical views of the authorities a criminal offense, subject to a prison sentence, in contravention of 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.

Mansoor faced 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. Before his arrest he gave numerous television and other media interviews on the issue.

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 reflects authoritative international standards, which allow content-based restrictions only 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 the UAE has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to impart news to others by any means. The only restrictions the charter allows 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 judicial hearings to 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.

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