By Mahmoud Habboush
ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Five political activists on trial in the United Arab Emirates on charges of insulting the country's leaders refused to attend a court hearing Sunday, alleging mistreatment, a defense attorney said.
The five are also accused of encouraging public protest in the emirates -- the world's third biggest oil exporter -- where widespread prosperity has helped long-established ruling dynasties to avoid the unrest that has erupted elsewhere in the region over the past year.
Mohammed al-Roken, a lawyer for two of the five political activists and bloggers who were arrested in April, told the court they did not attend "because their rights are violated, they are treated worse than convicts even though they are defendants."
He alleges one of the defendants, Nasser bin Ghaith, suffered leg injuries from chains. "How can a person pray, eat or use the restroom with handcuffs?" Roken asked the court. Wedad al-Muhairi, bin Ghaith's wife, broke into tears.
The security court's hearing was made public to the media and representatives of rights groups for the first time since the trial began in June. The defendants pleaded not guilty during a earlier hearing at the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi, whose verdicts cannot be appealed against.
The judge also heard an application Sunday to file civil charges brought by five individuals who say that, as ordinary citizens, they have been insulted by the activists' claims that the ruling elite has bought social peace through welfare provisions. The judge gave no immediate indication on whether the civil case would proceed.
Asked by Reuters to comment on the allegations of mistreatment, the state prosecutor said: "We can't comment on a case while it's being looked at by the court."
The state prosecution, presenting their case Sunday, said one of the activists published a petition urging a boycott of elections last month for half of a 40-seat consultative council.
The prosecution also said they had evidence the defendants incited citizens to "breach public order and stage demonstrations against the state."
On their arrest, the attorney general said the men were suspected of inciting "acts that threaten state security and public order," and "insulting the president, vice president and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi."
Among the defendants is Ahmed Mansoor, who joined several dissidents this year to start an online petition demanding greater powers for the country's Federal National Council.
The petition also called for the right to vote for all citizens. The government expanded the number of eligible voters to 129,000 in the Gulf state's second election on Sep. 24, about 12 percent of nationals -- up from 7,000 chosen for 2006 polls.
Bin Ghaith, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of France's Sorbonne University, published an article criticising what he called Gulf states' attempt to avoid political reform by buying off their citizens with generous government spending programs.
Roken asked the judge to release the defendants on bail, adding that he had submitted four similar requests in the past. He was asked to resubmit the request.
Abdulhamid al-Kumaity, the main defense lawyer, accused security forces of harassing his staff, alleging they had deported two of his staff involved in the case.
Samer Muscati, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Reuters that making the trial public was a positive step, but not enough. "People should have the right to express themselves freely and without fear of imprisonment," he said.
At least 100 government supporters gathered in a park across the street from the court, holding up posters labeling the activists as traitors.
(Reporting Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)