Even by United Arab Emirates standards, the security arrangements for the largest political trial in its history were draconian. In a packed hearing at Abu Dhabi's Federal Supreme Court yesterday, 94 defendants – all members of a local Islamist group, Al Islah – were charged with belonging to a secret organisation and attempting to overthrow the state. Representatives of two human rights groups, including Amnesty International, were turned back at the airport while international media and foreign observers were barred.
During the Arab Spring the UAE became increasingly concerned that Al Islah – which it claims is closely linked to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and is the closest thing the country has to any organised political opposition – would become emboldened by the Islamist ideologies gaining ascendancy across the region.
The defendants have been rounded up in a series of arrests over the past year, and several reportedly told the court yesterday that they had been mistreated in custody. The accused include judges, lawyers and teachers. The group's chairman is Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassimi, a member of the royal family in Ras al Khaimah, one of the UAE's seven emirates.
The men, dressed in blue overalls and plastic slippers, were brought in from a secret location where they claim to have been held in solitary confinement, some for up to seven months. Thirteen women who are also facing trial have been allowed bail, while 10 defendants are being tried in absentia. All face sentences of up to 15 years and have no right of appeal.
"It was very emotional in the courtroom," said one attendee whose mother and father are on trial. "It was first time the detainees had met each other for months, so they were all hugging and crying. There's a relief that it's got to court but it's [also] upsetting to hear how they were treated."
According to sources allowed access to legal documents, the charges are based on an alleged confession by one of the defendants, Ahmed Ghaith al-Suwaidi. Yesterday he pleaded not guilty and asked the court for protection for his family and himself. At least two defendants told the court they had been beaten, while others said bright lights were left on in their cells around the clock. The court was adjourned until 11 March and the judge ordered the detainees to be transferred to an official prison. An Abu Dhabi government official said he couldn't comment on the allegations of mistreatment while court proceedings were still active.
To avoid any mass gathering outside the court, lawyers, family members and local journalists allowed to attend were bussed in from separate locations. The Independent was tailed by state security forces after speaking to some of the 150 family members waiting in the car park of the Federal National Council, away from the court building. Three teenage relatives of the accused were briefly detained after being found in possession of a poster defending the accused.
"It's just shocking," said Bushra al-Rokken, a 26-year-old whose husband, brother and father - a lawyer who has defended political detainees in the past - are among the detainees. Like most Al Islah members she claims the movement is "home-grown" and has no loyalties abroad.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was due to arrive in the UAE last night as he nears the end of his Middle East tour. Human Rights Watch called on him to raise concerns about the trial during his visit.