Emirati Court Sentences 43 Political Dissidents to Life Imprisonment in Secretive Mass Trial

Ellen Anevicius
Ellen Anevicius
Ellen Anevicius is the Editorial Operations Chief and Acting Middle East Desk Chief for Atlas News. She has a degree in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin. With extensive experience in South Asia and the Middle East, she brings nuanced analysis to the team and upholds the tenets of journalism across the newsroom - accuracy, integrity, and trusted editorial standards.

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A court in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday sentenced 43 activists, part of a group of human rights defenders and political dissidents referred to as the “UAE 84” to life in prison. According to state-run media, the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal convicted the 43 individuals on charges of “creating a terrorist organization” under its counterterrorism law during a mass trial, which human rights groups condemned. The UAE holds an abysmal human rights record when it comes to freedom of speech and assembly, with the US State Department citing “significant human rights issues” including allegations of torture in detention, arbitrary arrest and detention, political prisoners, government interference with privacy rights, and undue restrictions on free expression and the press.

Secret Trials, Double Jeopardy

“We hope that before you sentence us to death, you will give us the opportunity to defend ourselves,” Sheikh Muhammad al-Siddiq, an Emirati political dissident and one of the 84, asked during a March court hearing.

Human Rights Watch referred to the trial as the “forgotten” trial, for the lack of information from the Emirati government and the limited amount of public scrutiny into the well-hidden case. Emirati officials have restricted access to case material, held the hearings in secret, and committed “double jeopardy”—an international legal rule that should prevent individuals from being tried twice for the same offense after receiving a verdict.

The 84 defendants were prosecuted this week in a second mass trial after years in prison, with 93 percent of the known defendants already tried under the same charges in opaque court proceedings under the guise of “national security” in 2012 and 2013, in what became known as the “UAE 94” case. The UAE only acknowledged the trial after diligent human rights groups and journalists uncovered it. The indictment, the charges, the defense lawyers, and even the names of defendants have been kept secret by the government, and are known only partially through leaks and a decade of investigative reporting.

The court jailed 10 other defendants for 10-15 years on charges of “cooperating with al-Islah,” an Islamist group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, dismissed cases against 24 defendants, an Emirati state news agency said, and acquitted one of them. Many of the prisoners that were sentenced were among a group of more than 100 Emirati citizens who signed a petition in 2011 calling for an elected Parliament, the UAE’s first and only step toward the Arab Spring revolutions sweeping across the region at the time. Although the charge was for starting a terrorist organization, according to available information, the defendants had formed an independent political advocacy group a decade earlier.

According to research from Amnesty International, many of the defendants have been held in prolonged solitary confinement and subject to sleep deprivation through exposure to loud music. They were forbidden from receiving their own court documents, and family members were denied entrance to the courtroom to observe the trial.

“The trial has been a shameless parody of justice and violated multiple fundamental principles of law, including the principle that you cannot try the same person twice for the same crime, and the principle that you cannot punish people retroactively under laws that didn’t exist at the time of the alleged offense,” said Devin Kennedy, Amnesty International’s UAW researcher. “Trying 84 Emiratis at once, including 26 prisoners of conscience and well-known human rights defenders is a scarcely disguised exercise in punishing dissenters that has been further marred by a myriad of fair trial violations, the most serious of which is uninvestigated allegations of torture and other ill-treatment.”

Digital Surveillance, Spyware Contribute to Repressed Civic Space

One of the more well-documented cases, suspected to be among the recently charged, is that of Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist who was arrested and imprisoned by the UAE in 2011, for six months, and again in 2017. Mansoor was the 2015 recipient of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and a member of the advisory boards of Human Rights Watch Middle East and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. For years, Mansoor publicly criticized the country’s war in Yemen, the treatment of migrant workers, and the detention of political opponents.

Human Rights Watch reported that all of the charges that Mansoor was arrested and convicted on initially, in 2017, were based solely on his political advocacy and digital communications with HRW and Amnesty International. According to an investigation by Amnesty International’s Disrupting Surveillance team, Mansoor was the target of a string of cyber-attacks leading up to his arrest in 2017, with credible evidence of a spyware called Pegasus on his mobile phone identified by Citizen Lab. In March 2023, Amnesty International’s Security Lab revealed a sophisticated hacking campaign that had been targeting users in the UAE to install spyware on a target’s phone. Human rights defenders in the UAE have long been victimized by spyware tools from cyber-surveillance companies such as the Israeli NSO Group, which created the spyware Pegasus, and Hacking Team over the past decade. Ahmed Mansoor was targeted with spyware from both companies.

In January 2022, a year-long investigation into NSO Group and Pegasus by the New York Times revealed that Israeli officials had offered Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince the opportunity to acquire Pegasus in 2013 as a “peace offering” after Mossad agents poisoned a senior Hamas operative in a Dubai hotel room in 2010, intending to restore the relations severed by the operation.

The NSO Group claimed it ended its contract with the UAE in 2021.

Glistening Skylines Hide Abysmal Human Rights Record

The Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms that include Abu Dhabi and Dubai, has no official opposition and bans political parties. Ruled by leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the small country of 10 million people—with only one million being Emirati citizens—has translated oil wealth into economic and political power, and is now arguably one of the most influential Arab states. The UAE has long leveraged this economic power and status to prevent public criticism of its human rights record, emerging as one of the most politically repressive states in the Middle East, trending toward uncompromising authoritarianism.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the Emirati government has become less tolerant of political criticism on social media, coupled with an intrusive police state supported by a suite of advanced electronic surveillance capabilities that security forces use to monitor and combat dissent. The UAE views domestic security through the lens of regime stability and views the Muslim Brotherhood as a serious threat. Abu Dhabi is convinced that the transnational structure of the Muslim Brotherhood is so dangerous that if the Brotherhood gained power in neighboring countries like Egypt, it would try to mobilize its followers in the Gulf States, and especially in the UAE, against their governments, explaining the UAE’s harsh crackdown in 2011. This also means that the Emirati security apparatus sees ghosts of the Muslim Brotherhood where none exist, doling out heavy-handed terrorism sentences to any activist expressing the desire for political change in the country.

Freedom House, a political advocacy non-profit, scored the UAE 17 out of 100, or “not free,” in the areas of political rights and civil liberties in 2022. Human rights groups have long hoped that UAE allies, including the US, United Kingdom, and European Union member states, would break their silence on UAE human rights atrocities and condemn the sham trials.

“This is the second largest unfair mass trial of political dissidents and human rights defenders in the UAE’s history and the international community is failing to flag any concern,” said Joey Shea, a UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Emirati authorities have long used their country’s economic and security relationships to prevent criticism of its rights record, but rarely, if ever, has the silence from its allies been so deafening.”