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UAE: Jailing of democracy activists raises human rights concern

July 20, 2011 |  8:46 am

The oil-rich country of the United Arab Emirates is full of supposedly happy citizens enjoying a generous welfare system. But even so, it has not been spared the wave of pro-democracy sentiment that has engulfed the Arab world, as scholars and academics demand greater freedoms from the ruling regime.

This week, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch came down hard on the authorities in the UAE, issuing reports condemning the imprisonment of five pro-democracy activists last April.

The activists, Ahmed Mansoor, Nasser bin Ghaith, Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaled, were involved in creating and signing an online petition posted in March. It called for democratic reforms in the form of an elected parliament with more legislative power. In response, UAE authorities detained the five, accusing them, among other things, of insulting the president.

Prominent human rights organizations accused the UAE of breaching international human rights conventions.

"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. We consider all five men prisoners of conscience and call on the UAE authorities to release them unconditionally," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa deputy director.

According to the UAE's attorney general, the five activists were in "preventive custody" for "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."

International concern over the case has resurfaced with the reopening of the activists' trial on July 18 in Abu Dhabi's Federal Supreme Court. 

"The international community should end its silence and condemn this mockery of justice; the government had no business arresting these men in the first place" said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. 

The London-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information also called on the immediate release of the five detainees: "The UAE serves neither its citizens nor its international reputation by seeking to prevent legitimate debate taking place," said Rawda Ahmed, the deputy executive director.

But the crackdown appears to be broader than the case of the five activists. Authorities have been purging major forces of opposition for months, disbanding the elected boards of the jurist and the teachers associations after they called for political reforms earlier this year. 

 -- Roula Hajjar in Beirut