The piece below has been contributed by Jenifer Fenton, a freelance journalist based in the UAE, formerly with CNN.
Five activists charged with opposing the government and insulting the country’s leadership returned to court on Monday in the United Arab Emirates. Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist and blogger, and four others - who face up to five years in prison if convicted - have pleaded not guilty.
Behind closed doors in Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court the prosecution called two more witnesses who testified about the activists’ internet articles and blogs. There was a gathering of about 50 pro-government demonstrators outside the courthouse who protesting against the five: Emiratis Mansoor, Nasser bin Ghaith, Fahad Salim Dalk and Hassan Ali Al Khamis; and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, who does not carry identification papers.
Earlier this year, Mansoor was among 133 Emiratis who signed a petition to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Supreme Council of the seven Emirates asking for the country to have direct elections. The group also asked that the Federal National Council (FNC) be granted legislative powers; the body is only an advisory one.
Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University who knows the five activists said he does not think calling for reforms is a crime but that the case should be left with with the judicial system. Hopefully, the fairness of the trial is guaranteed and the men will be thought of innocent until proven guilty, he said.
The activists’ trial comes as the UAE is preparing for its second FNC elections on September 24, in which almost 130,000 Emiratis will be eligible to vote. Previous elections were held in 2006, when just more than 6,500 Emiratis were allowed to take part. There are 40 members of the FNC. Half of its members are elected by the electoral college and the other half are nominated by the rulers of their Emirate.
The FNC’s second elections are an improvement on 2006, however they fall short of universal suffrage, said Abdullah, who is not eligible to vote in September. “I don’t see any reason for delaying universal suffrage in the UAE and granting the FNC full legislative power.”
The UAE has not experienced the unrest that is sweeping the region, but it appears to be feeling the pressure to reform. The country is investing in water and electricity supplies in the northern Emirates, building thousands of homes to distribute to Emiratis and creating jobs for its citizens.
The UAE leadership is sensitive on a couple of levels, said Christoper Davidson, a Middle East expert at Durham University. Domestically, the wealth gap between the poorer and wealthier emirates is growing and there is resentment building in the northern emirates, he said. And the illusion of stability for the Gulf monarchies, with the events in Bahrain and Oman, is gone, Davidson said. The UAE has shown they are aware of problems in the Emirates, however given the arrest of the activists and clamp down on other institutions, the UAE is saying to its citizens “that we are not willing to talk to you while we are fixing them.”
The five activists have been detained and held in preventative custody since April. On the heels of their arrests, the UAE also dissolved the elected board of the Jurists Association and the Teachers’ Association replacing both boards with state appointees.
The Jurist Association was said to have violated the UAE’s Law on Associations, which bans NGOs from interfering “in politics or in matters that impair State security and its ruling regime,” according to Human Rights Watch. Sunday, dozens of Arab intellectuals, academics and human rights activists, among others, released a statement of solidarity with the five men in detention and have called on international organizations to “work on releasing prisoners of conscience and opinion.”
The petitioners mirrored an earlier call by four rights groups, including Amnesty International and HRW, to end the trial. “The UAE government is using defamation as a pretext to prosecute activists for peacefully expressing their beliefs about the way their country should be run,” Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International, said in a press release. The UAE has ratified Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, according to HRW.
While the Emirati leadership does not seem in real danger of losing power, the changes the UAE are making show that no one in the region is immune to the calls for political reform, said Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha Center. “This is a trend that has started. It has a very long way to come. How a regime, family, leadership responds sets the tone for what comes next.” The trend in the UAE has been for greater political say, but given the angst of the region, stability is valued, Shaikh said. A few weeks before he was detained, Mansoor tweeted “I wish to see UAE moving toward constitutional monarchy as a formula balancing between current situation and prospected reform.”
His trial continues at the end of September.