Ninety-four people accused of trying to seize power went on trial Monday in the United Arab Emirates, in a tightly guarded hearing criticized by human rights groups.
The suspects allegedly launched an organization that claimed to promote “the teaching and virtues of Islam, while their undeclared aims were, in fact, to seek to seize power,” Atty. Gen. Salem Saeed Kubaish told the UAE's national news agency in January.
Kubaish said the group tried to turn public opinion against the government by falsely smearing the state and sought financial help and advice from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The group's actions “have penetrated all sectors of the state and its organizations, such as societies, schools, universities, ministries and even families,” Kubaish told the Emirates News Agency.
Rights groups say the defendants have ties to Islah, an Islamist group that has peacefully engaged in political debate and called for democratic reform.
The massive trial is the latest sign of the unease in the United Arab Emirates over unrest at home in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the Middle East, toppling other leaders. The wealthy nation has not seen the kind of mass protests that roiled Egypt or Tunisia, but has nonetheless “intensified its campaign to silence critics of its ruling elite,” Human Rights Watch recently said.
Family members of the accused, who were allowed to attend the Monday hearing in Abu Dhabi, told the Associated Press that the defendants had denied the charges and that several testified they were punched and denied medical care while in detention.
Less than a week before trial, attorneys had not been given documents laying out the charges and evidence against the defendants, or even the identities of all those accused, according to Human Rights Watch. When some detainees were allowed to meet with attorneys, someone representing the state prosecutor was listening in, their families told the human rights group.
The Monday hearing was closed to foreign reporters. Human rights activists who wanted to observe the trial said they were prevented from entering the country to do so, including a Kuwaiti lawyer who had planned to attend on behalf of Amnesty International.
“It appears that UAE authorities will drag scores of citizens through a shamelessly unfair judicial process that makes a mockery of justice,” Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said.
Anwar Mohammed Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs, countered on Twitter that local media and emirati civil society groups, including a human rights group, had been able to attend the hearing “in a clear indication of transparency,” according to a translation by the Gulf News.
The Gulf News reported the trial will continue next week, giving attorneys more time to read the documents and “to inform suspects who fled the UAE about the significance of attending the trial.” Ten of the suspects have left the country, according to the Dubai newspaper.
The massive trial started the same day that U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived in Abu Dhabi to meet with senior UAE officials. Activists urged Kerry to bring up concerns about the fairness of the trial during his visit.