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UAE: 94 defendants plead 'not guilty' of attempted coup
Ninety-four people in the United Arab Emirates pleaded not guilty to charges of trying to overthrow the government on Monday, with several telling the court that they had been beaten and feared for their life while in custody.
The defendants – a diverse group of doctors, academics, lawyers, judges and other professionals – have been accused of building a secret network to plot the coup and raising money through real estate and other deals.
Obaid al-Zaabi and Omar al-Mansoori, relatives of some of the detainees, said several defendants – one crying – testified about being repeatedly punched, denied medical treatment, blindfolded and forced to take unknown medications.
After their testimony, the judge agreed to transfer the defendants from an undisclosed location to a general prison and allow several to get medical treatment.
Amid tight security, about 200 relatives were bussed to the morning court hearing held in the heart of the capital, Abu Dhabi. Security was tight around the court, where three protesters were briefly arrested. Authorities barred human rights observers and international media from attending.
Noemie Crottaz, a human rights officer for Swiss NGO Alkarama, told Al-Akhbar that she had planned to attend the trial, but was denied entry into the country without explanation.
“Authorities are putting up a number of hurdles that did not exist before 2011,” she noted. She said that she had been able to attend the “UAE Five” two years ago, in which five Emiratis were convicted, then pardoned, on charges of having insulted the country’s president, vice-president and crown prince.
One of the accused in Monday's trial was identified by the Alkarama as Mohammed al-Roken, who was the defense lawyer during the UAE Five trial.
Crottaz added that human rights observers now have to apply two weeks in advance to attend trials. The next hearing will take place March 11, too soon for observers to obtain an authorization.
The trial is part of a growing crackdown in the Gulf nation against perceived political or security threats inspired by uprisings in several Middle Eastern nations since 2011.
According to a government statement, the 94 are suspected of having ties 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 during the past year.
Many of the defendants are allegedly part of a loosely knit Islamist network known as al-Islah, which advocates a greater public voice in UAE's tightly controlled affairs. The group says it is a peaceful movement committed to non-violent reform.
“The people on trial are not calling for the overthrow of the government,” Crottaz said.
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.
Several relatives waiting to be taken to the hearing said the charges against their relatives were baseless. They said their family members had no links to the Brotherhood and only wanted to see greater democracy in the country, including giving more authority to the Federal National Council, a 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, a relative of Mohammed al-Roken. "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?"
Other family members said their relatives were held at undisclosed locations, in solitary confinement and in tiny rooms with nothing more than a mattress on the floor.
"It's unfair. Until now, I have had no justice," said al- Mansoori.
He said he has feared for his own security ever since his parents, an aunt and uncle were arrested more than seven months ago in the neighboring emirate of Ras al-Khaimah.
Crottaz confirmed that family members of the defendants have been repeatedly harassed and intimidated by the government, some even having their bank accounts locked.
“There is a fear of change,” she said. “The UAE is trying to halt that change, but it can’t stop it forever.”
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