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Legal analysts: The trial of the “UAE 84” reenacts a farcical repetition

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The judicial and legal advisor, Mohammed bin Saqr Al Zaabi, described the “UAE 84” trial as a farce repeating itself, pointing out that the current trial is a repetition of the scenario of the “UAE 94” trial, where the same people are being tried on almost the same charges.

Al Zaabi stated during his television appearance that the current legal proceedings disregard the principle of double jeopardy. He argued that the trial lacks a solid legal basis and appears to be an attempt to unjustly detain individuals who have already completed their sentences.

He also mentioned that the present trial serves as a legal means to validate the detainment of prisoners even after they’ve fulfilled their sentences, particularly in response to international and human rights criticisms aimed at the UAE for detaining individuals without adequate legal reasoning.

It’s worth mentioning that Counselor Al Zaabi is widely recognized as one of the leading legal authorities in the Emirates. He served as the head of the Emirati Jurists Association from 2002 to 2010 and possesses extensive judicial expertise, having worked as a representative for the Public Prosecution.

Anwar Al-Gharbi, Director of the Geneva Center for Democracy and Human Rights, asserted that, from an international law perspective, the individuals detained in the “UAE 84” case are deemed to be held arbitrarily. He emphasized that entities like the United Nations have a responsibility to intervene and safeguard the rights of these detainees.

Al-Gharbi highlighted that the actions of the UAE authorities go against the pledges they made during the universal periodic review held last year. This indicates their manipulation of the international community, and behavior unbecoming of nations.

Recently, the international organization Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about an unjust mass trial conducted by UAE authorities. They raised serious issues regarding due process, noting that numerous defendants endured prolonged solitary confinement, which constitutes a form of torture.

According to a statement obtained by Emirates Leaks, the organization reported that in December 2023, while hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), UAE authorities pressed charges against a minimum of 84 individuals in retaliation for their establishment of an independent advocacy group back in 2010.

The trial involves well-known activists and dissenters who are already serving extended prison sentences on arbitrary charges. This group includes notable human rights defender Ahmed Mansour, scholar Nasser bin Ghaith, and businessman Khalaf Al Rumaithi. Moreover, some individuals were convicted during the deeply flawed “UAE 94” mass trial in 2013, many of whom remain arbitrarily detained even after fulfilling their sentences.

“This unjust mass trial is a farce, and the accusations of torture and severe breaches of fair trial principles reveal the UAE’s hollow claims of upholding the rule of law and its utter absence of judicial fairness,” remarked Joy Shea, a UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch.

She added, “Other countries, international companies, and celebrities who are partners of the UAE must immediately call for an end to these violations and the immediate release of human rights activists like Ahmed Mansoor.”

Blatant violations

The organization has cited several concerns regarding fair legal procedures, such as limited access to case information, insufficient legal aid, judges influencing witness testimonies, violations of the principle of double jeopardy, credible accusations of serious misconduct and mistreatment, and undisclosed court proceedings.

In a statement issued on January 6, the UAE authorities accused 84 people of “creating and managing a secret terrorist organization in the Emirates, called the Dignity and Justice Committee.”

The charges appear to be under the UAE’s violating 2014 terrorism law, which imposes penalties of up to life imprisonment and even death for anyone who establishes, organizes, or manages similar organizations.

Human Rights Watch conducted remote interviews with informed sources and representatives of the UAE Detainees’ Advocacy Center (the Advocacy Center) between late March and April 2024.

Human Rights Watch research indicates that many defendants were held in solitary confinement and incommunicado detention for at least 10 months.

For a period ranging from 10 months to a year, visits and communication with families were banned, except for short phone calls made in December 2023. These calls served to notify the defendants’ relatives about the new case and instruct them to seek legal representation.

During the trial, the defendants repeatedly described abusive detention conditions, including physical abuse, lack of necessary health care and medication, constant loud music, and forced nudity.

According to a reliable source speaking to Human Rights Watch, during a session on March 14, certain defendants claimed that authorities at Al-Razeen prison compelled them to endure extremely loud music during their rest and sleep times.

They said they were subjected to interrogation after long periods of loud music and were forced to confess under pressure and psychological exhaustion. Those who refused were punished by solitary confinement.

The Advocacy Center documented that a defendant informed the court after enduring 250 days in isolation: “I’ve lost track of time, and my memory of the Qur’an, which I once memorized, is fading away.”

Human Rights Watch said UAE authorities should investigate allegations of abuse. It must hold those responsible accountable for any illegal act, and immediately provide appropriate health care to the accused.

The unfair mass trial was shrouded in secrecy, while the UAE authorities prevented the defendants’ lawyers from freely accessing the case files and court documents.

Several family members indicated that it was evident the attorneys were not provided with physical or digital copies of the court paperwork. Instead, they were only able to view the documents on a screen within a room under strict security measures and surveillance by security staff.

Informed sources said that lawyers are prohibited from photographing documents and are only allowed to record written notes.

The UAE authorities additionally restricted the ability of defendants’ family members to attend sessions without hindrance. In certain instances, relatives were barred from entering the courtroom and instead compelled to observe the proceedings from another location through a muted live feed, preventing them from hearing the session’s proceedings.

The Advocacy Center reported that the defendant, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Siddiq, said in a session on March 7: “We hope that, before you sentence us to death, you will allow us to defend ourselves.”

Despite a declaration by the state-controlled Emirates News Agency in January asserting the case’s “public” nature, UAE authorities imposed significant constraints on access to the hearings, including for family members, and withheld crucial details of the case, such as the identities of all the accused.

The organization emphasized the importance of diplomatic representatives from the UAE’s allies, such as the United States and Britain, attending the forthcoming trial session to oversee any breaches of due process.

A relative told Human Rights Watch: “No one knows who is on the list, no one knows who the 84 people are… Even those who attend the sessions do not know.”

According to the Advocacy Center, at least 60 people among the defendants were previously convicted in 2013 due to their participation in the Dignity and Justice Association. This raises concerns about the UAE authorities violating the principle of preventing double trials, which prevents people from being tried twice for the same crime after receiving a final ruling.

According to the Advocacy Center, the Public Prosecutor failed to introduce any fresh evidence, relying solely on the evidence presented during the “UAE 94” mass trial in 2013. A family member commented, “It’s just a repeat of the 2013 case; there’s no new evidence, and the accusations remain unchanged.”

Members of the defendants’ families also expressed their concerns about the impartiality of the president of the court. A relative said that during a hearing on December 21, “the judge put it in the mouths of the witnesses.”

Relatives and the advocacy center said that the judge intervened during the witness’s testimony, corrected his statements, and dictated statements to him.

The advocacy center added that at a certain moment, a policeman handed a paper to the witness, who used it to answer the remaining questions.

A knowledgeable insider stated, “This trial lacks independence; it’s under government control. The judiciary is under their influence, and they’ve explicitly conveyed to us from the outset that they disregard both the system and the laws.”

“A decade after the infamous ‘UAE 94’ case, this farce trial proves that the UAE’s human rights record has deteriorated further,” Shea said. Ahmed Mansour and the rest of the defendants must be released immediately.”

Torture and ill-treatment

Several family members noted that during a session on March 14, certain defendants appealed to the judge for a respite from solitary confinement during Ramadan, yet their plea was disregarded. On other occasions, the defendants repeatedly sought relief from their prolonged solitary confinement, only to have their requests consistently overlooked. Furthermore, it appears that the judge prevented these appeals from being officially documented, as reported by both a relative and the advocacy center.

Under international law, prolonged solitary confinement may amount to torture.

Additional claims of abusive detention conditions are prevalent. According to reports from some relatives and the advocacy center, a defendant informed the judge of being held in solitary confinement for over two years and enduring repeated assaults by security forces. Another defendant, as relayed by a relative, stated that they were kept naked in solitary confinement for over a week.

Other defendants said they did not receive their prescribed medications, and that prison authorities ignored their requests for health care.

According to the advocacy center, during a session on March 7, a defendant requested to see an ophthalmologist because of vision impairment in one eye. He mentioned that he had submitted a healthcare request to the prison administration but received no response.

A family member reported that a defendant was escorted out of the courtroom following the disclosure of specific accusations of torture and physical abuse directed at the judge.

The UAE authorities also restricted communication with family members. A relative said that, since the summer of 2023, they had received one phone call in December.

The phone call lasted for “less than a minute,” informing the family about the fresh charges and advising them to seek legal representation. Two other families reported not having any communication with their relatives for over a year, except for a similar brief contact in December.

The Nelson Mandela Rules, which are the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, emphasize that solitary confinement should only be employed in rare circumstances as a final option and for the briefest duration possible. Furthermore, its use should undergo an independent assessment of the circumstances and require approval from a qualified authority.

The Special Rapporteur on torture asserted that prolonged solitary confinement exceeding 15 days must be outright banned, referencing scientific research demonstrating that even a short period of social isolation results in irreversible harm, particularly enduring psychological consequences.

Restrict Access to Court Files

The UAE authorities did not provide lawyers with unrestricted access to basic documents, including case files and basic information.

Lawyers were only able to view the case documents under the supervision of security officers, and take notes.

Attorneys representing the defendants were barred from disclosing case information. According to a family member, the lawyer designated by the family conveyed that he was forbidden from disclosing any details, including case specifics or proceedings updates, until the trial’s conclusion and verdict issuance.

Certain families opted not to engage private legal counsel and were instead restricted to legal representation provided by the prosecution. The court-appointed lawyer for at least one family is barred from communicating with the defendant or their family. A relative mentioned, “Even if the lawyer manages to gather trial-related information, they are not allowed to divulge it to the family.”

The UAE authorities did not disclose basic information about the case, such as the names of the defendants, neither publicly nor to the defendants’ lawyers.

The charges, in this case, were not officially confirmed by Emirati authorities until January, when the Emirates News Agency disclosed that UAE Prosecutor Dr. Hamad Saif Al Shamsi had forwarded 84 defendants to the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal to face trial for allegedly establishing an undisclosed organization to carry out violent and terrorist acts within the state’s borders. However, the relatives remain uncertain whether this statement encompasses all the charges.

The statement referred to the trial as public, although the UAE authorities have severely restricted family members’ access to the courtroom.

According to statements from some relatives and the advocacy center, family members of the defendants attempted to attend the second hearing on December 14 but were refused entry. UAE authorities permitted relatives to observe the session through a silent live broadcast in a separate room, where they were unable to hear or fully follow the proceedings.

Some relatives and the advocacy center said many families were unable to fully attend due to expired passports or ID cards needed to enter the courtroom and surrounding facilities.

Following numerous complaints from family members, UAE authorities permitted a restricted number of relatives, no more than seven, to attend the courtroom sessions. However, during these sessions, police and security personnel stood in close formation in front of the defendants, obstructing family members’ view of their loved ones.

One of the relatives said: “The session lasted five hours, but I was not able to see him because of the large number of police officers, and if anyone tried to look at the accused, the police officers threatened to expel him from the hall.”

Certain family members additionally reported that their relatives observed cameras and listening devices within the room where they were viewing the live broadcast. They expressed concerns that the State Security Service might be monitoring their conversations and reactions.

Double Trial

One of the relatives said: “History is repeating itself here. It is the same trial as 2013, except that in 2013 there was more freedom, as family members were able to attend the sessions.”

Meanwhile, relatives said that they believe that the new case is only a pretext to keep them detained indefinitely.

At least 60 people among the recent defendants were convicted in July 2013, in the “UAE 94” trial.

The trial resulted in the sentencing of 69 government critics, with eight convicted in absentia, for offenses that infringed upon their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Presently, at least 51 of the individuals known as the “UAE 94” remain in detention even after serving their sentences.