x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UAE's court system gave 94 accused a fair and open trial

Whatever the Supreme Court rules, the undisputed fact is that the trial process was fair, transparent and in strict adherence to the rule of law

In Abu Dhabi today, the Federal Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling in what is undoubtedly the first case of its kind in the UAE's legal history.

On January 27, the federal attorney general issued an indictment bill referring 94 Emiratis, including 13 women and 10 absconders, to the court on charges of establishing an illegal secret society (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) aiming to seize power.

This indictment came in the regional context of the political movements that some countries experienced during the Arab Spring.

In respect of the number of people accused, the seriousness of the charges, and the amount of publicity the process has engendered, this is clearly the highest-profile trial that the UAE has seen since its foundation in 1971. As such, the case has become a test for the UAE’s legal system and judiciary.

The law-enforcement clampdown on alleged members of the secret society mentioned in the indictment started as early as March 2010, almost three years before the case was sent to court.

Some observers have criticised the length of time that the investigation took. However, in light of the seriousness of the charges, the complexity of the case, the number of the accused and the resources needed to deal with the matter, the period does not really seem to be unduly long. However, some people do continue to maintain that the process could have been expedited.

The case has been tried before the Federal Supreme Court of the UAE, which has exclusive jurisdiction under article 99(6) of the Constitution to try cases relating to the security of the Union.

Because the Federal Supreme Court is the country's highest, this is a one-stage trial; there can be no appeal from the verdict.

Some may objectthat having the case tried initially before the Supreme Court deprives the accused of any opportunity to appeal. However, the fact that the highest court in the hierarchy of the nation's legal system is dealing with the case should be a source of relief.

The prosecution brought charges under Articles 180, 182 and 117 of the UAE Penal Code. Article 180 provides for imprisonment for anyone who establishes any sort of an organisationthat aims to topple the government, or calls for that to happen, and for anyone who becomes a member of such a group. Article 182 provides for the dissolution of such organisations. Article 117 authorises surveillance, for a period of five years, of anyone who is convicted on the above charges.

The trial has attracted much attention from the media, international observers and human rights organisations worldwide. To their credit, the authorities were cautious in their approach to the trial and have provided a level of transparency that is normally not available in criminal trials.

The families of the accused, members of the media and representatives of civil society were all called to attend the hearings. The accused were allowed to attend the hearings in their day-to-day attire and not in prison wear, which is the normal process in criminal trials. All procedural demands made by the accused during the trial were met. The defence was given full access to all documents and evidence that the Prosecution relied upon.

And when some of the accused challenged the genuineness of some of the video and audio recordings that the Prosecution had presented, the Court referred this evidence to a separate local, rather than federal, forensic department. Some of the accused were allowed to make pleas and present arguments themselves even though they were represented by their lawyers.

Witnesses that the defendants' lawyers asked to appear were allowedto do so. A few of the accused demanded to have their sessions in private; the Court consented.

And in an unprecedented development, an accused person who was suffering heart problems was allowed to leave the country to receive medical treatment abroad - at the expense of the state.

Some have criticised this whole processon the grounds that the court did not allow some questions that lawyers for the accused wanted to pose to witnesses. But it should be remembered that the UAE's legal system gives courts the authority to deny any questions that the court in its sole discretion believes to be unrelated to the case. The court merely exercised its discretion in this regard. However, providing some room in this context would have been an added element of relief.

Although some foreign media had raised the allegation of torture during the investigation process, the accused themselves did not raise any claims of this nature during the trial.

The court was keen to conclude the trial in an expedited manner and accordingly it was staged in 13 hearings over a period of about five months. This is a record time; criminal trials can last 18 months,or even longer.

Whatever the Supreme Court rules, the undisputed fact is that the trial process was fair, transparent and in strict adherence to the rule of law.

Dr Habib Al Mulla is chairman of the law firm Baker & McKenzie Habib Al Mulla