The trial of 94 people accused of plotting to overthrow the government in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has come to a conclusion. 69 of the 94 were found guilty, receiving prison sentences ranging from 7 to 15 years, and the remaining 25 were acquitted.
Authorities accused the 94 of establishing a secret organisation plotting to seize power, with evidence in the trial appearing to rest on the political beliefs of defendants and membership of the locally based al-Islah. Although many are members of al-Islah, a legal organisation that peacefully advocates for greater adherence to Islamic precepts, they believe that they have been persecuted for their support of a petition calling for democratic reform.
Domestic media reaction, acting under strict self-censorship, has focused on defending judicial independence and the verdicts' legitimacy, failing to raise allegations of fair trial violations and torture. Numerous articles have referred to the case in the past tense, something that is now part of the country's history, and called for citizens to move on. While authorities are keen to move on, as long as security services abuse citizens with impunity and political opponents continue to be repressed, the verdict is likely to be the beginning of the story.
Although the perceived leaders of the political opposition are now serving lengthy prison sentences, which include a royal family member and two prominent human rights lawyers, the treatment of the 94 does not deal with their calls for democratic reform. The case has polarised society into two camps: there are those who support the silencing of these political activists and others who feel the 94 are being unfairly targeted for their political beliefs.
A source of anger among defendants' families and their supporters has been the trial itself. In what was supposed to be a public trial international observers and foreign media were barred from the courtroom. The use of contracted judges has called into question the independence of the tribunal and defence lawyers have claimed they did not receive prosecution evidence in time to adequately prepare a defence.
Yet it is the allegations of torture that have caused most concern. 22 handwritten letters smuggled out of prison include allegations that detainees were subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, hooding and regular beatings. During pre-trial detention, which lasted for almost a year in some cases, prisoners were held at a secret detention centre where they were denied access to lawyers and family visits.
These allegations of torture, which have gone without investigation by authorities, have led to family members expressing anger on social media websites. Abdulla al-Hadidi, whose father was on trial, used Twitter to question why the allegations had not been investigated and is now serving a 10-month prison sentence as a result. Indeed, the night before the verdict, Obaid Yousif al-Zaabi was arrested after using Twitter to criticise authorities and repeat allegations that his brother Ahmed had been tortured.
The number of prisoners involved should not be taken lightly. With well over 100 political prisoners and a national population of fewer than 1 million, the UAE now possesses one of the highest per capita rates of political prisoners in the region. When this is taken into consideration with the widespread anger among families and supporters, it is clear that this is a significant issue that involves a large number of people.
Public outrage is only likely to grow as security services continue to act with impunity. Only one day after the verdict, two of the acquitted defendants have been re-arrested by state security. The men, Ahmed al-Hammadi and Mohamed al-Shaami, are said to have told the court during the trial that state security warned them that they would be arrested again even if found not guilty.
The beginning of this case, in February 2012, was characterised by late night raids on homes by plain-clothed security services arresting people without warrants. It is these same security officials that are accused of torturing prisoners during their pre-trial detention.
Although authorities continue to co-opt traditional media outlets to control the public narrative, the use of social media means that their grip over information is loosening. Twitter accounts detailing the various abuses of the UAE 94, such as @uae_detainees, @uaemot and @newbedon, have thousands of followers that ensure details of mistreatment are readily available.
An immediate change of tact is required in order to deal with this deepening situation. Authorities must quash the verdicts of those found guilty, release prisoners that they have presented no credible evidence against and impartially investigate allegations of torture.
In the face of a public campaign aimed at turning these political opponents into malevolent conspirators, it is vital to take into account their actions that led to this trial. The 94, which included academics, judges, lawyers and student leaders, openly hold a political belief that the UAE needs to advance to an accountable and democratic form of governance.
This belief was laid bare when many of the 94 signed the March 2011 petition that called for the Federal National Council (FNC) to be wholly elected and possess full jurisdiction over the legislative process. The FNC is currently an advisory body that is partially elected by a handpicked group of citizens. During the trial, prosecutors did not present any evidence to credibly prove that the 94 have engaged in activities that are in any way violent or threatening the public order.
Domestic media outlets, under the guidance of the authorities, may be keen to sweep this case under the rug in the hope that political opponents have been silenced once and for all. Yet, with 30 more people due to face trial on similar charges after Ramadan, the UAE 94 promises to be the first in a series of such trials.
The approach taken by authorities, led by the security services, to counter political opponents has been imprisonment, public smearing of their political affiliation and the introduction of legislation restricting free speech. While this remains the reaction to peaceful political activists, the case of the 94 will not become part of the UAE's history. Rather, this case will come to shape the country's future.