|Allegations against the activists include 'publicly insulting' Abu Dhabi's crown prince [Reuters]
The families of five activists who are due back in court in the United Arab Emirates on charges of insulting senior officials have made a joint plea for their release, according to a leading human rights organisation.
"Real insult to the Emirati government is not anything these men said, but that the country's leaders have jailed them for it"
- Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Sunday that the families of the activists sent a letter to the president and vice-president of the UAE, as well as to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, contending that the judiciary, prosecution, and prison officials had violated 20 human rights standards in their treatment of the accused.
These violations 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 defence.
Rights groups, including the New York-based group HRW, have said that the trial has been marked by serious procedural flaws and has violated the most basic defence rights of the accused.
'Miscarriage of justice'
"Every moment that these men spend behind bars simply for exercising their right to free speech is a miscarriage of justice," Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at HRW, said on Sunday.
"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."
The five activists, Ahmed Mansoor, an engineer and blogger, Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist, university lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi and advocate for political reform, and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis, were arrested in April and charged under article 176 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to publicly insult senior officials.
Some of the activists had signed a petition in March calling for political reforms, including direct elections and broadening the powers of the ineffective UAE legislature, the Federal National Council (FNC).
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 FNC, and legislative powers for the council.
|Families say authorities have done nothing to stop campaign of intimidation against defendants [AFP]
The UAE attorney general said at the time they were being held on suspicion of "committing crimes of instigation, breaking laws and perpetrating acts that pose a threat to state security, undermining the public order, opposing the government system, and insulting the president, the vice-president, and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi".
The families say that when the 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.
According to HRW, the authorities closed the first four hearings of the trial to the public, journalists, international observers, and the families of the accused, without any explanation.
"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 offence, and the authorities have not suggested that the defendants pose a flight risk," said the organisation in a statement on Sunday.
"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, declaring that he and the other defendants would boycott the October 2 hearing because the court was a "farce and facade meant to legitimise 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."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies