(Beirut) – A court judgment in an earlier United Arab Emirates (UAE) trial raises serious concerns about a similar trial set to begin on November 5, 2013. The UAE Federal Supreme Court’s July 5 verdict in the case of 69 people found guilty of attempting to overthrow the country’s political system calls into question the ability of the country’s judicial system to uphold basic rights of free speech and peaceful association. The November 5 trial is of 30 people accused of similar crimes.
From the court’s reasoning it appears that those convicted in the earlier case simply exercised their legitimate rights to free expression and association, Human Rights Watch said after reviewing a translation of the judgment. The bulk of the evidence in the 243-page judgment focuses on the peaceful political activities of the accused and their ties to an Emirati Islamist group, al-Islah, which the judgment asserts is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The only evidence that suggests any intention to overthrow the government is a confession by one defendant, Ahmed al-Suweidi, whom authorities forcibly disappeared for 5 months after his arrest on March 26, 2012. In court al-Suweidi denied all the charges.
“The court’s judgment exposes the rank injustice of the convictions,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Aside from one apparently coerced confession, the judgment describes a political society advocating social justice through peaceful political reform.”
None of the 69 detainees in the earlier trial had access to legal assistance for months in pretrial detention. During the trial, 22 of the 94 defendants smuggled out handwritten notes alleging that they had endured mistreatment that in some cases amounted to torture. There is no evidence that the court investigated these claims. The court convicted 69 of the defendants on July 2 and sentenced them to prison terms of up to 10 years.
On November 5, 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis will go on trial at the state security court on charges of running a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Abu Dhabi. Like many of those convicted in July, they allege that UAE authorities subjected them to torture in detention and denied them access to legal assistance for many months.
Prior to the opening session in the earlier trial, on March 4, reliable local sources told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution’s case was largely based on confessions from two defendants, though only one was mentioned in the judgment.
Fifteen pages of the judgment are dedicated to al-Suweidi’s confession, which paraphrases his detailed descriptions of the structure of al-Islah and its supposed aims. The verdict declares that, “He, with the collaboration of others, established and administered the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE, calling for actions opposing the basic principles of rule in the UAE and with the aim of toppling the regime and seizing power.”
There is nothing in the judgment aside from al-Suweidi’s disputed confession that suggests those convicted were doing anything other than expressing opinions in the context of an organization whose goal was political reform, Human Rights Watch found.
Al-Suweidi’s confession identifies two well-known Emirati human rights lawyers, Mohammed al-Mansoori and Mohammed al-Roken, as key figures in the organization. The judgment says that al-Mansoori “set out a clear vision: a demand for an elected national council, pressuring the state internally and externally, defaming the UAE’s image to force recognition of their organization and to allow their work to take place publicly in the UAE.”
Members of al-Islah, notably al-Roken and al-Mansoori, “communicated with international organizations including Human Rights Watch,” “sought to control the associations of teachers and lawyers in the UAE,” and “communicated with embassies of other countries,” the judgment said.
Al-Mansoori acknowledged in the judgment that he ran a website and participated in televised political debates broadcast from outside of the UAE. According to the judgment, “when confronted that some of his speeches… were defamation of the state and its government and an attempt to incite internal public opinion against them, he said that he depicted the reality and what he talked about was the result of violations by some officials of UAE laws and its constitution.”
The preamble to the UAE’s 1971 constitution states that the country will progress “by steps toward a comprehensive, representative, democratic regime.”
The judgment says that investigators “confronted” al-Roken with a Whatsapp text on his phone titled “Emirati citizen: where to?” The message asked why a prominent Kuwaiti Islamic scholar had been banned from entering the UAE, and included a link to an Associated Press article on the detention in 2011 of five UAE nationals whom al-Roken represented and a text message linking to the UAE page of the Human Rights Watch website. According to the judgment, al-Roken described his role as to provide “balanced political analysis based on information about many issues.”
Twenty-nine pages of the judgment summarize details of four audio recordings of al-Islah members discussing domestic political issues that, according to the judgment, total more than 22 hours. The judgment quotes some short excerpts verbatim, but paraphrases much of what the speakers allegedly said.
On May 26, 2011, according to the verdict, one speaker posed a question of how the group should respond to the Arab uprisings: “Dear brothers, in the midst of the revolutions that took place in the Arab world, such as in Egypt and other countries, what is our role in this great movement within the region? Do we have to participate and go to the streets with them or do we have another role?” Another speaker at a February 6, 2012 meeting said, “Our Tahrir Square is Twitter.”
Much of what the recordings apparently describe is peaceful political debate. During the February 6, 2012 conversation, one speaker posed a range of questions that included, “Are Emirati nationals afraid to express their opinions?”; “How do you feel when you know that your job depends on the approval of certain bodies?”; and, “Can economic prosperity come before human dignity?” The judgment even quotes one of the speakers expressing what might be considered exculpatory evidence: “I want to conclude that we in the United Arab Emirates are not a threat to the security of the people or the systems of the regime.”
The right to freedom of association guarantees everyone the right to join with others to attain a particular objective. Article 24 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights and article 33 of the UAE Constitution protect this right with the caveat that it is only guaranteed “within the limits of the law.”
“This judgment sends a message to Emirati citizens that engaging in free-thinking political debate and criticizing their government are treasonous acts,” Stork said. “In the current repressive climate the best way for Emiratis to stay out of jail is for them to exercise their right to remain silent.”