The UAE’s Forgotten Mass Trial

  • Opinion by Joey Shea
  • Inter Press Service
  • Joey Shea is the UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“We hope that before you sentence us to death, you will give us the opportunity to defend ourselves,” implored Sheikh Muhammad al-Siddiq, an Emirati political dissident, during a March court hearing.

Public scrutiny on this case is necessary for these defendants to have any hope for freedom. The silence of the international community – now and over the last decade – has led us to where we are now: 84 of the UAE’s brightest civil society members are at risk of losing their voices forever.

The trial has been characterized by t fair trial and due process violations. Emirati authorities have restricted access to case material and information, shrouded the hearings in secrecy, and violated the principle of double jeopardy—an international legal rule that prohibits trying people twice for the same offense after they had received a final verdict. Judges have brazenly directed witness testimony. Most disturbingly, defendants have repeatedly described abusive detention conditions such as physical assaults, forced nudity, and prolonged solitary confinement that would amount to torture.

Emirati authorities announced the mass trial in December 2023 as the eyes of the world were on the UAE during the COP28 climate summit in Dubai: The timing was shocking, during an international meeting in the UAE that was promised to be “the most inclusive ever held.”

The bold timing can be chalked up to the impunity the UAE has enjoyed over the last decade. Despite the country’s continuing crackdown on political dissidents and civil society, few, if any, governments have dared to criticize the country’s rights record. The UAE has become a key security ally for many governments and has fostered strong economic ties.

The new trial can trace its origins back to the 2013 “UAE94” mass trial of political dissidents, where an Abu Dhabi court sentenced 69 defendants to between 5 and 15 years in prison on charges related to their political activism.

Most of the defendants from the 2013 trial are being tried in the new case on nearly identical charges, even after having served their full sentences. Emirati human rights defenders believe the authorities brought the new case to keep the dissidents detained indefinitely – there is little hope for an alternative outcome unless allied governments speak out.

Diplomatic missions expressed some concern over the UAE’s crackdown on civil and political rights in 2011 and 2013. In 2013, international institutions at least attempted to send observers to the trial. No embassy has sent monitors to observe trial proceedings to our knowledge.

But limited scrutiny was quickly traded for stronger economic and security relationships. Human rights groups have been pushing for sustained attention on the case for years, but instead silence has prevailed. This silence has led to Emirati state security authorities becoming emboldened and acting with greater impunity.

The UAE has long leveraged its economic and security relationships to prevent public criticism of its human rights record, but now the silence from the UAE’s western allies is nearly absolute. More than a decade on from the UAE94 trial, the silence from the UAE’s partners is total. During my recent trip to the UAE, diplomatic missions told me that public expression of concern for the fair trial violations we documented was out of the question; even private engagement was highly unlikely.

All governments concerned with human rights, particularly close security and economic allies of the UAE, should publicly condemn the trial’s abuses and send monitors to the July 10 session.

Sustained public attention and pressure may have led to the release of the UAE94 defendants upon completion of their sentences. Instead, the case was lost to political expediency and the new case was announced.

While the 2013 trial was covered extensively by the international press, the new case has barely made headlines. A few dedicated and brave outlets that have closely followed the trial, often at great personal risk to staff, but many more have not. Reporters following the trial could face travel bans, intimidation and deportation.

If neither the foreign press nor the diplomatic community provide the necessary scrutiny, the 84 may be condemned to suffer for many more years on July 10.

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service