United Arab Emirates sentences 43 activists to life in prison

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The United Arab Emirates has sentenced more than 40 political and human rights activists to life in prison after convicting them on terrorism charges, in a trial that campaigners condemned as “shamelessly unfair”. 

The state-run Emirates News Agency reported on Wednesday that the Abu Dhabi federal appeals court had convicted 53 defendants, including “leaders and members of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood organisation”.

Of those defendants, 43 were sentenced to life in jail, while a further 10 received prison terms of 10 to 15 years, the agency said.

Human rights groups said the accused were human rights activists, government critics and democracy advocates.

The Gulf monarchy first brought the terrorism charges against dozens of people while it was hosting the UN COP28 climate conference last year.

There are more than 80 defendants in what human rights groups say is the UAE’s second biggest mass trial ever, and many have been in jail for more than a decade, having originally been tried in 2013. 

Among those sentenced to life imprisonment on Wednesday was human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Roken, according to the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre, an advocacy group.

Roken was originally arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years jail in 2013, according to Amnesty International, after being charged with plotting rebellion.

Roken was among the defendants who had served sentences but then faced fresh charges in last year’s trial.  

The Abu Dhabi court ruled on Wednesday that the convicted people were involved with a group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist organisation which the UAE says is a terrorist group.

The court also said the defendants were trying to incite violent protests. The state news agency did not cite specific incidents or other evidence.

The verdicts against the 53 defendants can be appealed. The court meanwhile dismissed cases against 24 defendants and acquitted one, the state news agency said.

Joey Shea, UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that the harsh prison terms made a “mockery of justice”, adding: “The UAE has dragged scores of its most dedicated human rights defenders and civil society members through a shamelessly unfair trial riddled with due process violations and torture allegations.”

Mohamed al-Zaabi, director of the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre, described the trial as a “facade”.

The UAE does not tolerate dissent. It argues a tough stance on security protects it from the political instability and violence that has affected many of its Middle East neighbours, helping the UAE to cement its position as the region’s centre for business and tourism.

But human rights groups have insisted the mass trial damaged the UAE’s progressive image, and raised concerns about how justice was carried out.

They say the legal process has been shrouded in secrecy, that lawyers for the defendants have not had proper access to evidence, and that some prisoners have been held in solitary confinement.

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