Five activists charged with opposing the Emirati government, inciting demonstrations and insulting the country’s leadership have been sentenced to jail. The rulers of the United Arab Emirates have made it clear they do not welcome public challenges to their absolute authority to rule.
Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist who faced more charges than the others, was sentenced to three years. Four others, including Nasser Bin Ghaith, an academic who has lectured at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, received two year prison terms. The trial was held in a state security court. The men cannot appeal, according to Mohammed Al Roken, one of the lawyers representing them.
The activists were accused of insulting the Emirati leadership via the website al-Hewar (now down) or Emirates Dialogue Forum, which has been blocked by the UAE since February 2010, according to Al Roken. The charges against them were related to articles posted between July and October of last year. But the five men were not arrested until April 2011, suggesting that UAE authorities wanted to crush even minor dissent in light of the Arab Spring. Also in March of this year Mansoor, a member of Human Rights Watch Middle East advisory committee, was among 133 Emiratis who sent a petition to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Supreme Council asking for the country to have direct elections and for the Federal National Council to have legislative powers.
Article 176 of the UAE penal code states “any person who insults by any means of publicity the president of the state… shall be punishable by confinement for a period not exceeding five years.” Article 8 expands the law to include the vice president, members of the Supreme Council of the Federation and crown princes.
Human Rights Watch said in a press release that it had reviewed the messages allegedly posted by the accused and found none “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.”
In the run up to the FNC elections in the UAE earlier this year, the Emirati leadership, including the President, urged its citizens to participate in broad and active political participation.
Now, in what smacks of hypocrisy, the UAE has imprisoned five men who were doing just that. Furthermore, the men have not received fair treatment. “Since their arrests, these peaceful activists have been subjected to an alarming series of threats and intimidation, with the apparent acquiescence of the Emirati authorities,” according to a report by Charlotte Peevers [PDF], a legal expert.
The fate of the five was decided perhaps before the trial began. As Bin Ghaith wrote before the verdict:
This trial does not fulfill the minimum requirements of justice… I refuse to be a part of this silly show and become a victim of this falsehood. It appears that the verdict is already given away; we will be punished for giving our opinion on state policy and for declaring our stance towards some state affairs.
The UAE may still pardon the five men, but the country has already demonstrated its distaste for democracy.