Ninety-four people in the United Arab Emirates pleaded not guilty to charges of trying to overthrow the government yesterday, with several telling the court that they had been beaten and feared for their life while in custody.
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 court hearing held in the heart of the capital, Abu Dhabi. The road leading to the court was closed and authorities barred international media and several rights groups from attending.
“This is a good beginning because our prisoners are very strong and made a very good defence,” said al-Zaabi, whose brother, Ahmed, is among the detainees. “They called it a historic moment for the Emirates, for the politics of the UAE.”
The trial is part of a growing crackdown in the Gulf nation against perceived political or security threats inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings. The next hearing will be on 11 March.
The UAE is a federation of seven constitutional monarchies: the Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Qaiwain, with Abu Dhabi pre-eminent.
The defendants – unnamed doctors, academics, lawyers, judges and other professionals – have been accused of building a secret network to plot the coup. 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.
They are believed to be part of a loosely knit Islamist network known as al-Islah, or Reform, which advocates a greater public voice in UAE’s tightly controlled affairs.
Rights groups have criticised the crackdown and it has also raised tensions with Egypt, which is governed by the Brotherhood. In the Gulf federation, the arrest of the defendants was seen as part of what appears to be growing intolerance for any criticism of the government or its leaders. The current president is Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
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.
“If anybody reads the accusations, they will surely observe these are only based on suspicions,” said Khalid al-Roken, whose brother and nephew are among those being tried.