- Sixty-nine people are sentenced to prison, eight of them in absentia
- They allegedly set up an organization aimed at overthrowing the government
- Human rights groups say it is a crackdown on freedoms after the Arab Spring
A United Arab Emirates court convicted dozens Tuesday in a high-profile case against 94 people charged with plotting to overthrow the government. More than two dozen of those who stood trial were acquitted, according to state media.
It was a trial that drew criticism from international rights groups, who accused UAE authorities of "serious pretrial violations of fair trial rights."
The Supreme Federal Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced eight people in absentia to 15 years in prison, while 56 of the suspects were handed 10-year prison sentences, five were sentenced to seven years in prison, and 25, including all 12 women in the, case were acquitted.
Financial assets belonging to some of those convicted have also been confiscated, according to the state news agency, WAM. The court also ordered the shutdown of a number of organizations and websites that seem to be associated with the accused.
According to the country's Ministry of Justice, the sentences in the state security trial that lasted four months cannot be appealed.
The 94, all UAE nationals, were facing various charges including establishment of a clandestine organization aiming to overthrow the government.
The charges, according to judicial authorities, stem from Article 180 of the country's penal code, which bans "establishing, instituting, founding, organizing, administering or joining an association, corporation, organization or any branch thereof, with the aim of overthrowing the regime of the State"
The group is also accused of having links to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an organization prohibited in the UAE.
"They launched, established and ran an organization seeking to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and to seize power," Attorney General Salem Saeed Kubaish said in a January statement published by state media.
Recent statements by Human Rights Watch said many of the 94 are members of a local "non-violent group that has been engaged in peaceful political debate in the UAE for many years and advocates greater adherence to Islamic precepts."
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other watchdog groups have described the mass trial as unfair. The groups have also accused authorities of abusing the detainees.
According to Human Rights Watch, the defendants included two prominent human rights lawyers, as well as judges, teachers and student leaders.
Rights groups have accused the country's judicial authorities of carrying out a trial shrouded in secrecy by not allowing international journalists and observers to cover the hearings. Local media and observers have had access to trial sessions.
Authorities have maintained that the trial has been a fair and transparent one.
"As per the UAE constitution and law, the Ministry of Justice stated that the court's transparency, fairness and independence were upheld, with more than 500 observers in attendance at each court hearing, including family members of the defendants, representatives of the national media" in addition to a local rights group, the Ministry of Justice said in a statement reported by WAM.
It also said those attending were "given all judicial and administrative guarantees to carry out their activities without restrictions within the provisions of law."
Before handing down the verdicts, the judge read a statement defending the fairness of the proceedings.
In the statement, also carried by the state news agency, the judge said that throughout the proceedings, the defendants were allowed to defend themselves and counter any of the evidence presented against them transparently, and the trial adjourned for the verdict only after both sides presented their cases.
Many believe UAE authorities are clamping down on the freedom of expression in reaction to the Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East starting in early 2011.
Unelected ruling families in oil-rich Gulf countries such as Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have sought to prevent popular uprisings. But countries such as Bahrain have also received criticism for their heavy-handed use of force.
While there has been little protest in the majority Sunni and hugely wealthy UAE, some believe authorities were taking no chances.