Over the past two years a disturbing trend of political show trials has emerged in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where authorities are trying to silence citizens calling for democratic reform. The latest trial saw 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis found guilty of setting up an “international branch” of the Muslim Brotherhood in a process marred by a litany of human rights and fair trial violations.
Instead of removing calls for democratic reform, a crackdown against political activists has seen a significant growth in criticism of the authorities. What began with 133 people signing a petition in March 2011 that called for a wholly elected parliament has resulted in punitive legislation covering Internet use; a political prisoner population of well over 100 people; and entire families of political activists being put on indefinite and unofficial travel bans.
The trial of Egyptians and Emiratis is more than simply a ruse to intimidate others from expressing a political opinion, however, and is part of a wider strategy by authorities to demonise the political opposition. After a much-criticised trial of liberal and secular activists in 2011, the crackdown has focused on the locally based al-Islah (Reform) organisation who authorities have sought to paint as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in disguise. When dealing with political opposition groups Middle East expert Dr. Christopher Davidson says; the Gulf states have “tended to pick upon what’s likely to be the most effective demon to get the bulk of their population on board and connect that opposition to some kind of external threat”, which in the UAE has proved to be the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and demonstrates the ultimate purpose of this latest show trial.
As has become the norm for victims of this crackdown the Egyptian detainees were arrested without warrants, held incommunicado at an unknown location for a prolonged period, denied access to legal representation and, most worryingly of all, authorities failed to investigate credible allegations of torture against them. The 10 Emirati defendants, which included prominent human rights lawyer Dr. Mohamed al-Mansoori, were already serving lengthy prison sentences after being convicted in the “fundamentally unfair” trial of 94 political activists that ended in July 2013.
Vague charges against some defendants included that they had stolen and distributed information from the security services; whilst others were accused of failing to notify authorities about the alleged theft. Defence lawyers said there was “no tangible evidence” as the prosecution’s case rested on witness statements and accusations of an organisational structure for the supposed Muslim Brotherhood cell. Tellingly, when passing the verdict the presiding judge said the court had “given defendants the opportunity to prove their innocence”, contradicting a basic tenet of law that the burden of proof must lie with the prosecution.
Response to the convictions in domestic media consists of a predictable flow of justifications from government controlled civil society groups and quotes from academics defending yet another show trial. The Emirates Human Rights Association, which has not raised any of the human rights concerns documented by international groups, held a press conference describing the process as “transparent, clear and open”. Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science, said the case was “a legal one and not political” in which people had “violated the law and had to be dealt with”.
Once the Egyptians have completed their prison sentences, which range between 3 months and 5 years, they will be deported from the UAE having served their purpose of demonising the domestic political opposition. Political trials are unlikely to stop, however, and there is already another one taking place involving a Qatari doctor that is strikingly similar to all the others. Indeed, as these trials continue to be discussed on social media platforms we are likely to see more arrests relating to online activism.
Since revised cybercrime laws were passed in 2012, which outlawed all forms of criticism against authorities, there have been a number of people put on trial for comments made on Twitter about political prisoners. The latest to be convicted was 19-year-old Mohamed al-Zumer, sentenced to 3 years in prison and given a fine of 500,000 AED (£83,250) for comments made about the alleged torture of political prisoners.
The crackdown has not only widened to those who criticise political trials, but now includes the families of political prisoners. Human rights activists have documented 30 cases where relatives of political prisoners have been banned from travelling without explanation and it is believed that there are hundreds of people restricted from leaving the country. The recent arrest of Aisha al-Zaabi, wife of exiled activist Mohamed Saqer al-Zaabi, shocked many, as she was the first woman to be detained by state security services. Aisha was arrested as she attempted to leave the country for an overseas trip and during her detention she was not accused of committing a crime but was interrogated for hours about her husband’s political activities.
It is difficult to conclude where this will end, but it is clear there will be more trials relating to political activism as authorities continue to be intolerant of citizens who express any form of political opinion that challenges the status quo. The widening influence of security services, which act with complete impunity, causes grave concern for the safety of those brave enough to challenge repressive actions by authorities.
The contradiction between a carefully crafted public image and the reality on the ground is clear to see. In November 2013, Dubai won the right to host the World Fair in 2020 under the banner of “connecting minds, creating the future”, which coincided with this trial and the detention of an American on state security charges for posting a satirical video to YouTube. The courageous Emiratis who called for accountable governance in the 2011 petition, inspired by the country’s constitution that promised a “comprehensive, representative, democratic regime”, appear no closer to achieving their goal as repressive authorities widen a crackdown in an attempt to cling on to absolute power.