Terror trial set to begin for U.S. citizens in United Arab Emirates

Real estate developer Kamal Elderat, left, and his 34-year-old son, Mohamed, are shown in this handout.

Story highlights

  • Two U.S. citizens charged by the United Arab Emirates with supporting terrorist groups go on trial Monday in a case that has drawn criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups
  • Real estate developer Kamal Eldarat and his 34-year-old son Mohamed were arrested in August 2014 at their home in Dubai

Washington (CNN)Two U.S. citizens charged by the United Arab Emirates with supporting terrorist groups go on trial Monday in a case that has drawn criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups that say their confessions were coerced by torture.

Real estate developer Kamal Eldarat and his 34-year-old son Mohamed, who runs a Subway sandwich franchise, were arrested in August 2014 at their home in Dubai. Amal Eldarat said her father fled his native Libya during Moammar Gadhafi's reign more than 25 years ago, moving his family to California before settling in the UAE in the 1990s.
    Amal said UAE security services stormed her family's home, locked her and her mother in a room and rifled through their belongings before taking her father away. Mohamed, her brother, was taken away the following day. The Eldarats were among a group of Libyan businessmen rounded up that week, just days after UAE and Egyptian planes launched airstrikes against Islamic militants in fighting in Libya's civil war.
    Amal said her father and brother were held incommunicado in a remote desert prison for months, where they were suffered electric shocks and were subjected to a mock execution. They were eventually moved to a regular prison, where Amal said they were forced to confess ties with groups the UAE considers terrorists.
    This past January, more than 16 months after their arrests, the Eldarats were charged under a terrorism law that was enacted after they were taken into custody.
    Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the U.S., insisted the Eldarats are being accorded "due process" and treated "in accordance with international fair trial standards."
    But the case has been slammed by human rights groups and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, who last month cited "credible information" the Eldarats and several other Libyan detainees "were tortured and forced to sign confessions," and voiced concern about their health. Amal Eldarat said her brother had lost hearing in one ear and her father lost weight was suffering from acute back pain.
    "My dad was like a walking skeleton," she said of her last visit with him. "It was like he was gone."
    A UAE court has ordered a medical investigation into the allegations of torture.
    The State Department has been measured in speaking about the case, even while acknowledging consular officials were denied access to the Eldarats for the first year of their detention. They were first allowed a visit last October, and have had only sporadic access since then.
    "We're concerned about several aspects of their case -- the allegations of mistreatment, their health issues, the lack of access to legal representation, and the lack of consular access at the start of their detention," State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday. "We've raised all of these issues with senior leaders in the UAE government."
    The case presents of a challenge for the U.S., which counts the UAE among its closest allies. The UAE is part of the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS and has actively worked with the U.S. to end the civil war in Syria.
    The State Department has taken issue with the UAE's limitations on civil liberties of its residents, criticizing the government in its last human rights report for arbitrary arrests, secret detentions and brutal treatment of prisoners.
    "For all of the Obama administration's rhetoric on the importance of human rights, when it came to the UAE, the United States went silent," said Brian Dooley, Director of Human Rights Defenders at Human Rights First. "The State Department needs to speak out much more loudly about this case and not let its military relationship with the UAE silence its protests about human rights abuses."
    The UAE has become more aggressive in the fight against Islamic militants since the Arab Spring, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. The two militias the Eldarats are accused of funding -- Libya Dawn, and the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, which was once hired to protect the U.S. consulate in Benghazi -- have ties to the Brotherhood. Neither are designated terrorist groups by the U.S. or the U.N., but February 17 has been linked to Ansar al-Sharia, which has ties to al Qaeda and which the U.S. does consider a terrorist group.
    The Eldarats deny supporting the two militias, but Amal believes said her father and brother raised the UAE's suspicion because they returned to Libya in 2011 after the fall of Gadhafi on a humanitarian mission, bringing food, clothes and satellite phones.
    "The UAE has a phobia of the Muslim Brotherhood and makes very little distinction of whether people are doing things which most in the United States would view as normal political activity as opposed to support for terrorism," said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
    Amal Eldarat said she is disappointed the State Department has not spoken out more forcefully about the case and hopes more will be done to seek her family's release
    "My mother, sisters and I are frightened beyond words for my father and brother. If there ever was a moment for the U.S. government to intervene on behalf of law-abiding U.S. citizens, now is the time."