Case against UAE insider stuns political activists

AP News
Posted: Oct 02, 2011 1:00 PM
Case against UAE insider stuns political activists

Nasser bin Gaith wouldn't seem to fit the image of an angry Arab Spring activist.

The 42-year-old Emirati, a decorated former air force pilot who holds degrees in law and international trade, comes from a prominent Dubai family with a long history of serving its rulers. He's lectured at one of the country's showcase institutions, the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris' Sorbonne university, and worked as a legal adviser for the Emirates' armed forces.

Yet the United Arab Emirates now considers him a potential enemy of the state.

The case of Bin Gaith and four others returned to court Sunday in Abu Dhabi, where they face accusations of threatening the UAE's stability by joining Internet campaigns calling for a greater public voice in the country's affairs.

The five activists _ jailed since April _ boycotted the session as part of demands for bail and to protest their treatement as alleged state security risks. For the first time, however, authorities opened the previously closed-door hearings to the public.

While the UAE has not experienced any of the street protests or clashes that have reshaped the Arab world, the Emirati rulers are no less on guard. Political activity is heavily restricted in the seven-member federation and opposition groups and political parties are banned.

The anti-state charges against the five _ which could bring decades in prison _ highlight the strict political limits in a country that built its fortunes on Western-style commerce and open borders for workers from around the world.

Even modest calls to loosen the power of the ruling sheiks are seen as acts of betrayal against the tacit bargain common throughout the Gulf: Cradle-to-grave privileges for citizens in exchange for unwavering loyalty to the system. The region's main political bloc, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, has now reoriented its mission to try to ride out the Arab upheavals with its ruling families intact.

Gulf nations, led by powerful Saudi Arabia, strongly backed the uprising in Libya that sent Moammar Gadhafi on the run and tried to broker an exit deal for Yemen's president. But when protests threatened one of their own _ Bahrain's 200-year-old dynasty _ Gulf allies sent in military forces to aid the embattled king.

"I cannot believe something like this has happened to my husband, to us," said Waedad Belaila, bin Gaith's wife, in an interview with The Associated Press. "My husband is a good man. He likes the sheiks and he loves his country. All he gave was advise, good advise, for our country."

But he apparently went too far by supporting an online petition that included calls for free elections and real powers for the country's 40-member Federal National Council, an advisory body whose new members were selected last month among voters hand-picked by the rulers.

In court Sunday, prosecutors played a video montage of patriotic images _ including the UAE's founder Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan _ in an apparent attempt to mock the activists' calls for reforms.

"They are all Emirati!" shouted defense lawyer Mohammed Roken. "They are all sons of Zayed!"

On April 17, bin Gaith's regular column ran in an Abu Dhabi financial paper, Roayam Iqtisadiyya. Students at the Sorbonne were in class, waiting for bin Gaith to give one of the last classes before exams. He never showed up.

A day earlier, state security agents lured him from his Dubai villa to Abu Dhabi, the capital, and arrested him on the spot, his family said.

It stunned the tiny activist community in the UAE.

"The fact that a man of his stature and connections is a political prisoner proves that money can't always buy silence," said Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Britain's Durham University and an author of two books on the UAE.

State security agents began targeting perceived dissidents in early April, detaining a popular blogger, Ahmed Mansour, bin Gaith and three others in just a few days. All the men in custody signed the reform petition along with at least 130 other Emiratis.

The charges in the trial, which opened in June, include publicly insulting ruling sheiks, which is a crime in the UAE.

Bin Ghaith had often criticized the Gulf's ruling sheiks for failing to have the country's legal codes keep pace with the staggering economic development of the past decade. He also questioned the cash-for-stability remedies by Gulf rulers to blunt Arab Spring-inspired demands.

"They have announced 'benefits and handouts' assuming their citizens are not like other Arabs or other human beings, who see freedom as a need no less significant than other physical needs," bin Gaith wrote in an article posted on the blog on April 11 _ less than a week before his arrest.

"No amount of security _ or rather intimidation by security forces _ or wealth, handouts or foreign support is capable of ensuring the stability of an unjust ruler," he wrote.

His family remains baffled by bin Gaith's fall from respected insider to accused opponent.

"What did he do to deserve to be treated in such way?" said bin Gaith's brother, Sultan. "He is a distinguished citizen of this country, a war veteran, a decorated pilot and economist and a lawyer. What is his crime? This article?"

Since 2006, bin Gaith has served as legal adviser to the military and was responsible for negotiating contracts with major defense contractors in the U.S. and Europe. He had lectured on international trade law at the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi since 2009, but never received a salary, family members said.

The administrators of the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi could not be reached for comment. They have previously told reporters bin Gaith was not a member of the university's teaching staff, but acknowledged that he had given lectures. The university referred other questions about the case to UAE authorities.

The state-run WAM news agency ran a brief item April 25 saying five activists in custody were accused of "opposing the government." In June, the five were charged with various anti-state crimes including "perpetrating acts that pose a threat to state security" and insulting the rulers of Abu Dhabi, according to WAM.

If convicted in the state security court, bin Gaith and other activists have no right to appeal, legal experts say. The three-judge panel normally tries terrorism suspects and other anti-state crimes.

International rights groups have repeatedly called on the UAE to release the activists, saying authorities have presented "no legitimate evidence" to support the charges.

Rights groups also see bin Gaith's case as a cautionary tale because of his deep connections to the ruling system.

"If it happened to him, it can happen to any Emirati," said Samer Muscati, a Middle East researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.


Associated Press writer Adam Schreck in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.