By Chloé Benoist
Emirati prisoners accused of trying to overthrow the Government held a symbolic protest Tuesday during a hearing, denouncing violations of their rights in a case that has sparked concern from human rights activists.
Of the 94 defendants in the case, 86 appeared in court on Tuesday, the rest being tried in absentia. Four of the accused staged a silent protest at the beginning of the hearing, refusing to sit down when the judge ordered them to.
The Abu Dhabi court accepted a request by one of the defendants to travel abroad for medical treatment during the hearing. The judge then set the next court date for April 30.
The “UAE 94,” as they have been called by human rights activists, are a diverse group of doctors, academics, lawyers, judges and other professionals who have been accused of building a secret network to plot the coup.
Many of the prisoners are allegedly part of a loosely knit Islamist network known as al-Islah, which advocates a greater public voice in UAE’s tightly controlled affairs. The group says it is a peaceful movement committed to non-violent reform.
The trial has been marred by irregularities, as human rights NGOs have denounced the UAE’s ongoing crackdown on civil society activists.
The UAE has tried to prevent information about the trial from going public. Late last month, a court sentenced the son of one of the defendants to 10 months in prison for providing details of court proceedings to human rights organizations and international observers.
According to Swiss NGO AlKarama, which closely monitors the case, the defendants have still not been able to see the case filed against them.
Although the judge had ordered that the defendants be given access to their files in March and earlier this month, the decision still hasn’t been implemented.
“We’re extremely concerned to hear that the judge’s instructions are not being respected when it comes to access to the case file for detainees who have experience in this field, namely (lawyer Mohammed) al-Roken,” Noemie Crottaz, a human rights officer for AlKarama, told Al-Akhbar.
“The way these hearings are being held continue to perpetuate the violation of the right to equality of arms.”
Defendants have also complained that their statements had been falsified, and that dubious audio recordings were being used as evidence.
Al-Roken was allowed to speak during Tuesday’s hearing. He demanded that the “UAE 94” be treated on the principle of the assumption of innocence, and that their allegations of torture be investigated.
The media’s eagerness to vilify the “UAE 94” prompted the court’s judge to warn journalists to stop presenting the prosecution’s evidence as fact in their reports.
“The judge has implicitly confirmed the negative role being played by the local media, and although he gave instructions that this should stop, we don’t really believe it will have any effect on media that is close to the authorities,” Crottaz said.
Media coverage has turned the case into a “trial of public opinion” against the prisoners – putting them and their relatives at risk of reprisals – an AlKarama spokesperson said, calling the trial a “travesty of justice.” In a similar case in 2011 against the “UAE 5,” the accused and their families received death threats after negative media coverage of the trial.
In a letter to US President Barack Obama Monday, Human Rights Watch called for him to pressure Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan during a meeting between the two on Tuesday to “reverse the worsening human rights situation in the country.”
“The backdrop to the two leaders’… meeting is the UAE’s fundamentally unfair mass trial of 94 critics of the government, the unpunished torture by its state security services, and an escalating crackdown on free speech,” HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson wrote.