(Beirut) – The trial of 94 Emirati citizens accused of crimes against national security on March 4, 2013, raises serious fair trial concerns, including limited access to lawyers and withholding of key documents concerning the charges and evidence against them, Human Rights Watch said today. The detainees include two prominent human rights lawyers, Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed al-Mansoori, as well as judges, teachers, and student leaders, at least 10 of whom are women. Several defendents have alleged that they were subjected to ill-treatment in detention, Human Rights Watch said.
United Arab Emirates (UAE) Attorney General Salem Saeed Kubaish released a statement on January 27, 2013, alleging that the 94 “launched, established, and ran an organization seeking to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and to seize power.” But as of February 27, the authorities had not released to lawyers the identities of all 94 detainees, documents setting out the charges against them, or the evidence on which these charges are based. Authorities have held 64 detainees whose identities are known at undisclosed locations for periods of up to a year and denied them legal assistance until late February. The decision to prosecute the case before the Federal Supreme Court under state security procedures deprives those being tried of the right to appeal, Human Rights Watch said.
“Defense lawyers cannot possibly defend their clients adequately without seeing the documents setting out the evidence against them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It appears that UAE authorities will drag scores of citizens through a shamelessly unfair judicial process that makes a mockery of justice.”
Local activists in contact with family members of the detainees told Human Rights Watch that authorities finally allowed some defendants to meet separately with defense lawyers on February 20 and 21, and February 25, 26, and 27. These meetings took place at the office of the state security prosecutor in Abu Dhabi, the families said, with a representative of the prosecutor’s office listening in to the conversations. The reported circumstances of the meetings violated the confidentiality of conversations between lawyers and their clients.
Family members of five of the detainees told Human Rights Watch that their detained family members had told them about ill-treatment in detention, including prolonged solitary confinement, 24-hour bright fluorescent lighting, inadequate heating, forced wearing of hoods whenever they were outside their cells – including while being escorted to the bathroom or interrogation rooms – and persistent insults from prison guards. As Human Rights Watch has previously documented, a son of one of the detainees, who was at a court hearing to extend their detention on September 6, 2012, reported that they appeared disheveled, disoriented, and distressed. Two of the detainees appeared barely able to walk, one appeared unable to follow the proceedings, and another told the judge that he was weak because he had been given sleeping pills.
The specific whereabouts of the 64 detainees, who have ties to a peaceful Islamist group, al-Islah, remain unknown, prompting concern for their well-being. Al-Islah has been a legally recognized organization in the UAE since 1974. Human Rights Watch has previously documented how lawyers employed by the only Emirati law firm currently offering legal assistance to the detainees have themselves been arrested, deported, and intimidated.
Though most of the defendants were arrested between May and July 2012, local activists told Human Rights Watch that authorities only began allowing phone calls and family visits in November. Currently, detainees are allowed to call family members twice a day for a maximum of three minutes per phone call. The calls are monitored by state security officers, who immediately disconnect the calls if the detainee or family member attempts to discuss his or her case or location.
Since November authorities also have allowed family members to meet all detainees in person once a month for a maximum of 30 minutes at the office of the state security prosecutor in Abu Dhabi, but only with a representative from the prosecutor’s office in the room.
Though details of the charges remain unknown, based on the attorney general’s January 27 statement it appears authorities will charge the activists with violating article 180 of the penal code, which mandates up to 15 years in prison for anyone who has “set up, established, organized, or run an association or organized body or branch of an organization that seeks to subvert the ruling regime of the country or to promote this through use of force or otherwise.” The same article provides for up to five years in prison for members of such organizations.
Family members of the detainees told Human Rights Watch that authorities froze all bank accounts and assets of detainees following their arrest as well as accounts and assets of their spouses and underage children, in many cases leaving them in difficult financial circumstances. Human Rights Watch has seen a copy of a signed order from the UAE attorney general dated October 25, 2012, ordering all money and assets of 23 of the detainees frozen as well as those of their wives and underage children.
Authorities told defense lawyers in late February that they will permit two family members of each male defendant and one family member of each female defendant to attend the March 4 court session, though in order to enter the sessions each visitor must hand over a copy of each of the following documents: his or her ID card, a personal photo, phone numbers, a proof of relationship with the detainee, and a copy of his or her car registration. The requirement to provide phone numbers, photographs, and car registrations heightens concerns that the authorities will use the trial as a means of gathering data on friends and families of those accused in an arbitrary interference of their right to privacy, Human Rights Watch said.
Previous trials of activists in the UAE have consistently demonstrated serious due process flaws. Following the 2011 trial of five prominent activists who had signed a petition calling for more democracy in the UAE, known as the UAE5, a coalition of five human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch issued a report showing that “flagrant due process flaws” had essentially denied the five men the right to a fair trial. Among the flaws were the prosecutors’ refusal to hand over to defense lawyers all the documents setting out the charges and evidence against them, denial of confidential meetings between defendants and their lawyers, and persistent unequal treatment of the defense and prosecution.
Article 13 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, to which the UAE is a state party, states that “