x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UAE sedition trial: the case that gripped the nation

UAE sedition trial: From the day in early March when the first hearing took place, the sedition case has been a hot topic from mainstream media to Twitter.

The State Security Court in Abu Dhabi has been the focus of huge media interest in the UAE sedition trial. Waleed Abu Hamza / Al Itthad
The State Security Court in Abu Dhabi has been the focus of huge media interest in the UAE sedition trial. Waleed Abu Hamza / Al Itthad

Abu Dhabi // For two years investigators kept a close watch on more than 300 people suspected of having close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist social and political movement set up in Egypt in 1928.

All those under investigation were members of Al Islah, an organisation licensed since the 1980s by the country's leadership to teach the virtues of Islam according to Sharia. Investigators found the organisation targeted people in the educational system, including schools, universities and ministries, with the aim of turning the public against the state.

Prosecutors accused 94 men and women of establishing, organising or administering the group and trying to divert the public's loyalty. They said the accused were seeking to undermine the principles of government and wanted to seize power. Seven of the 94 had their citizenship revoked because they had connections with international groups and were endangering state security.

The trial began with a first hearing at the State Security Court in Abu Dhabi on March 4, and continued with a further 12 hearings over the next four months. All the accused denied the charges against them.

During the hearings, Judge Falah Al Hajeri gave the accused the chance to defend themselves and agreed to many of their requests, which included providing them with reading glasses, newspapers and books, longer visitation rights, a copy of the case files, and most importantly to be transferred to a group prison instead of solitary confinement. The judge also allowed family members to meet the accused during break times in court, and gave lawyers the chance to communicate with their clients if there was a need.

The lawyers continued to present their clients' requests throughout the trial, and were given multiple chances to defend their clients. They called upon several defence witnesses and questioned them in court.

Prosecutors provided witnesses and evidence in court, including videos and recordings of several meetings that were held by the accused. Other evidence such as photos, text messages, chat conversations and documents were provided to the court with detailed reports attached.

Sultan Souud Al Qassemi, a commentator on Arab affairs, attended two of the hearings. Writing on Facebook, he described the trial as having an "easygoing atmosphere".

"The accused sat behind low-rise glass partitions and were able to communicate with their families. They visited with each other before the session and in the break. Almost all of the accused were smiling, laughing and some even cracked jokes," he wrote.

Since most of the accused were intellectuals who have experience in many fields and who have helped in the growth of the nation, Mr Al Qassemi said the long-term implications on society would depend on their successful re-integration.

"Will they be given their work permits back, and a certificate of good conduct that is required to resume work? Leaving them without the possibility of work for a long period will be counterproductive," he said.

Saeed Al Ketbi, a media representative who attended 12 hearings, admired the judge's respect shown to the accused, allowing them to speak on several occasions and to defend themselves despite having appointed lawyers.

He referred to the television show Qadheyat Watan (Issue of a Land), in which Mohammed Al Hammadi, editor-in-chief of The National's Arabic-language sister newspaper Al Ittihad, described the treatment of the accused by the judge.

"The judge dealt with them in a sophisticated manner, which reflects his Emirati traditions. He would call a doctor 'doctor', and those who had a high social status would be called 'sir'," said Mr Al Hammadi. "I believe that part was very important, as the judge was able to absorb any emotional tension."

Mr Al Ketbi said Emirati society must realise this was a case of national security despite others trying to connect it to human rights.

"The trial's only implication on society is that the Emirati community will know who is trying to imbalance the state, and they will find the independent judiciary system of the UAE to meet their expectations with regards to its integrity," he said.

The defence lawyer Mohammed Al Zaabi, who represented seven of the accused, said the case had proceeded in accordance with the procedures set out in legislation, especially the penal code.

"I had hoped for more time to set up the defence presentations," he said. "We, as lawyers, had asked for a month to have the files ready but the court allowed us only a week, which created a burden on us, and we were not able to study the case files very well, especially since they are over 10,000 pages.

"And I felt the other lawyers had the same issue. The speed at which the trial progressed was very fast, which exhausted the lawyers."

The court responded well to the lawyers' requests, Mr Al Zaabi said, and refused some, as was its right. He was not pleased with some public statements in some media.

"Many media outlets, sadly, were fast to judge and analyse the case against the defendants. Judge Falah Al Hajeri mentioned this in court, and he was right to believe it would have a negative reaction in the community," Mr Al Zaabi said. "Only the court can judge the defendants, and they go through a process, therefore no other body can intervene in the verdict."

Mr Al Zaabi spoke about the development of the justice system and how strong it has become. He said the court system entitled lawyers to have different opinions and interpretations of legal material, which could be right or wrong.

"All sciences and professions can have mistakes, and there is no escape," he said. "But, Judge Falah, I have no doubt in his fairness and integrity."

The trial is now part of the country's history, the biggest political event the UAE has been through, said Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at UAE University. He continues to regard the trial as a new experience for the country, an "exceptional and complex trial" that generated a lot of questions.

"The whole process raised a lot of questions in the way the UAE handled things," he said, noting that more effort should have been made to answer questions, especially from the international media.

"We had a legitimate case but the Government did not defend it nor did they explain it. As a result, there had been bad publicity, and maybe the reputation was tarnished. Now that the trial is over, the UAE could explain its story with the facts once again in a better light."

Many who attended the trial used Twitter to disseminate information, but some of it appeared to be lacking facts. Dr Abdulla said there were many "unfair accusations".

"It was a very open, transparent trial on our own standards," he said. "We don't need to convince anyone of our justice system, the trial was transparent enough and that is all we need."

Mishaal Al Gergawi, a writer and commentator on current affairs, said many people who had not attended the trial had made inaccurate claims about it, while those who attended had written about the proceedings in a clear and accurate way.

"I think it's important to differentiate between the judiciary in general and the legal proceedings of cases that relate to national security. One would only reach this conclusion when applying the rules of the former on the latter," he said.

Mr Al Gergawi said the UAE was not prepared to accelerate its political participation process under the pressure of groups such as Al Islah.

"The UAE has chosen to send a clear message that it has a zero-tolerance policy on subversive and transnational activities that undermine its sovereignty," he said.

"I think the main area where the UAE was weak in connection to the case was the weak level of communication, which in turn allowed for the public questioning of its international image - but even that, I believe, will be temporary.

"Provided we improve our communication capacities, and they have improved over the past few months, I don't think it's a genuine challenge."

Mr Al Qassemi agreed: "Public opinion in the UAE seems to be in support of the status quo."

 

aalkhoori@thenational.ae