ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Ninety four people went on trial Monday in the United Arab Emirates on charges of trying to overthrow the government, the latest in a growing crackdown in the Gulf nation against perceived political or security threats inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings.
Amid tight security, about 200 relatives were bussed to the court in the heart of the capital Abu Dhabi for the morning hearing. The road leading the court was closed and authorities barred international media, including The Associated Press, and several rights groups from attending.
The defendants — unnamed doctors, academics, lawyers and other professionals — have been accused of building a secret network to plot the coup and raising money through real estate and other deals.
According to a government statement, the 94 are suspected of links to the Muslim Brotherhood and other unnamed parties they allegedly contacted for expertise and financial support in their plot. The detained include men and women who were arrested over the past year.
They are believed to be part of a loosely knit Islamist network known as al-Islah or Reform which advocates a greater public voice in UAE's tightly controlled affairs.
Rights groups have criticized the crackdown and it has also raised tensions with Egypt, which is governed by the Brotherhood. In the Gulf federation, the arrest of the 94 is seen as part of what appears to be growing intolerance for any criticism of the government or its leaders.
Last year, the UAE set stricter Internet monitoring and enforcement codes that include giving authorities wider leeway to crack down on web activists for offenses such as mocking the country's rulers or calling for demonstrations. And last week, a scholar from the London School of Economics was barred from entering the country — prompting the school to pull out of a planned conference.
Several relatives waiting to be bussed to the hearing in Abu Dhabi said the charges against their relatives were baseless and said they hoped justice would eventually prevail either through the courts or by way of the country's rulers. They said their family members had no links to the Brotherhood and only wanted to see greater democracy in the country, including giving the greater powers to the Federal National Council, the largely toothless public advisory body in the country.
"If anybody reads the accusations that are put in their file, they will surely observe these are only based on suspicions," said Khalid al-Roken, whose brother and nephew were among those on trial. "They were meeting in houses so that means they have secret organizations arranging for a coup? All people have gatherings in their houses. Where does that constitute a threat to the government?"
Others, however, were less optimistic and questioned why it took authorities several months to charge the suspects. They said their relatives were held at undisclosed locations, in solitary confinement and in tiny rooms with nothing more than mattress on the floor.
"It's unfair. Until now, I have had no justice," said a man who identified himself only as Omar, fearing for his own security as his parents, an aunt and uncle were among the detainees. They were arrested in the neighboring emirate of Ras Al-Khaima seven-and-half months ago.
"It's my father, my mother. I have little brothers. Who will take care of them?" he said. "I don't know when they made these accusations. I don't understand the law here."
By mid-day Monday there was no information from the authorities nor in the local media on the hearing.
About two dozen international lawyers and rights groups, including Amnesty International, had demanded to attend the session but did not receive permission. Several reporters and activists were turned away by police before they reached the court and rebuffed when they tried to get answers from the Ministry of Justice.
"They are hindering any kind of observation by the public," said Ketil Lund, a former Norwegian Supreme Court justice who was part of an International Commission of Jurists delegation.
"That raises concerns about the fairness of the trial," he said. "I think they (authorities) are afraid to have it open. They are afraid the trial and the treatment of the detainees are not according to international standards."
Melanie Gingell, the U.K.-based Gulf Center For Human Rights, said her group requested to attend the hearing over the weekend but so far had heard nothing.
To her, the crackdown and the trial were another indication of the Emirates abandoning its commitment to democracy and the Arab Charter, which she said the UAE signed, as well as to calls for free speech and freedom of association.
"They have been taking small steps progressing toward democracy but in the last two years it seems they have been retracting greatly on that progress when you see an instance like this where international lawyers from the United Kingdom, Norway are turned away," Gingell said.
"It shows the UAE has something to be very scared of. They don't want the international community to see what is going on in (their) court system, in their justice system," she added.