A coalition of international human rights organizations on Thursday accused the United Arab Emirates of violating international legal standards by prosecuting five jailed campaigners for political reforms in the oil-rich Gulf country.
The statement by the 7-member alliance marks the highest level international pressure over the trial. The charges could carry long prison terms.
The activists, including a prominent blogger and an economics professor who has lectured at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris' Sorbonne university, were charged with anti-state crimes after signing an Internet petition calling for constitutional changes and free elections.
Political activity is severely restricted in the UAE, an alliance of seven semiautonomous states, each ruled by a sheik who inherits the post. There are no official opposition groups in the country, and political parties are banned.
The UAE has not had street protests like those that erupted this year across the Middle East, including in neighboring Bahrain. Authorities moved aggressively to keep demands for political change, inspired by the Arab Spring revolts, out of the Gulf federation that includes the glitzy city-state Dubai.
The five activists were arrested in April and charged with insulting the UAE's rulers and endangering the country's security. If convicted on all charges, they could face decades in prison.
A verdict is expected Nov. 27. The defendants have no right to appeal.
The coalition of rights groups that includes Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the legal proceedings at Abu Dhabi's Federal Supreme Court have been "grossly unfair" and that the case against the activists has "no basis in international law."
"UAE authorities should show a basic commitment to international legal standards by releasing these men without delay and initiating an independent review of why and how they've been prosecuted on these transparently politicized charges," said Jennie Pasquarella, an American lawyer.
Pasquarella has monitored the trial since September and attended an Oct. 2 hearing after authorities opened the proceedings to the public after the first four sessions.
The Human Rights Institute, an independent entity of the International Bar Association, urged the authorities to "immediately release" the activists. The group is holding its annual conference in Dubai this week.
Their detention over Internet posts raises "deep concern about restrictions placed on the right to freedom of expression in the UAE, particularly with respect to the online media," the HRI said in a statement.
Along with the prominent blogger, Ahmed Mansour, the five on trial also include three internet activists and Nasser bin Ghaith, the economics professor, who served as a legal adviser to the UAE armed forces until his arrest in April.
The International Bar Association's annual meeting in Dubai was canceled by UAE authorities, according to a letter to IBA members, reflecting the regime's heightened sensitivity to public debate.
The letter said the 6-day conference got under way on Sunday as planned, but only after organizers renegotiated some terms, like finding new titles for sessions on the death penalty, migration, corruption and other issues. No programming changes had to be made.
The last minute intervention by UAE security branch came as a surprise after years of planning, the IBA's executive director, Mark Ellis, told The Associated Press.
"The Arab Spring changed everything," Ellis said. "It heightened concerns of authorities around the (region) and put already vigilant security services on high alert."