ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — 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, relatives told The Associated Press.
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. The road leading the court was closed and authorities barred international media, including the AP, and several rights groups from attending.
"This is a good beginning because our prisoners are very strong and made a very good defense," 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 March 11.
The defendants — unnamed 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.
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.
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 criticized 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.
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. And last week, a scholar from the London School of Economics was barred from entering the country — prompting the school to pull out of a planned conference.
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, whose brother and nephew are among those being tried. "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?"
Others, however, were less optimistic and questioned why it took authorities several months to charge the suspects. They 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.
"It's my father, my mother. I have little brothers. Who will take care of them?" he asked. "I don't know when they made these accusations. I don't understand the law here."
By mid-day, the government had not released any information about the hearing.
About two dozen international lawyers and rights groups, including Amnesty International, were denied permission to attend the hearing. Several reporters and activists were turned away by police before they reached the court and rebuffed when they tried to get answers from the Ministry of Justice.
"They are hindering any kind of observation by the public," said Ketil Lund, a former Norwegian Supreme Court justice who was part of a delegation from the International Commission of Jurists, a group of international lawyers.
"That raises concerns about the fairness of the trial," he said. "I think they (authorities) are afraid to have it open. They are afraid the trial and the treatment of the detainees are not according to international standards."
Melanie Gingell, with the Gulf Center For Human Rights based in Britain, said the crackdown and trial was further evidence that the Emirates was abandoning its commitment to democracy, free speech and freedom of association.
"They have been taking small steps progressing toward democracy but in the last two years it seems they have been retracting greatly on that progress when you see an instance like this where international lawyers from the United Kingdom, Norway are turned away," Gingell said.
"It shows the UAE has something to be very scared of. They don't want the international community to see what is going on in (their) court system, in their justice system," she added.