5 UAE convicted reform activists freed from jail

AP News
Posted: Nov 28, 2011 2:27 PM
5 UAE convicted reform activists freed from jail

Five United Arab Emirates political activists received presidential pardons on Monday and were released after eight months in prison, just a day after they were convicted of anti-state crimes.

The activists, including a prominent blogger and an economics professor, were convicted on Sunday of insulting the UAE's top leadership, endangering national security and inciting people to protest at time when uprisings against authoritarian rulers raged across the Middle East.

The UAE has not been hit by the Arab Spring unrest that has spread across much of the rest of the Middle East, including neighboring Bahrain. Authorities moved aggressively against any signs of dissent that could pose a challenge to the tight political controls in country.

Ahmed Mansour, a prominent blogger was sentenced to three years in prison. The other four activists, including an economics professor who has lectured at Paris' Sorbonne university in Abu Dhabi, Nasser bin Gaith, received two-year jail terms on Sunday in the Gulf country's security court in the capital Abu Dhabi.

On Monday, they were pardoned and released.

"I feel happy because I am back with my family, but I also feel ashamed and have deep sorrow for my country," bin Gaith told The Associated Press in an interview after his release. "All I can say is that it's a sad moment for our homeland, a beginning of a police state that has tarnished the image of the UAE forever," bin Gaith said.

The UAE state news agency said in a brief report that the five were ordered released by the Gulf union's president, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The presidential pardon was issued "on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the UAE national day," the WAM report said.

Presidential pardons for convicted criminals and others offenders before major national or religious holidays are part of governance in the traditional and deeply conservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Their legal system is deeply rooted in tribal laws of the Arabian Peninsula.

Defense attorney Mohammed al-Roken said the charges against all five remain, despite the pardon.

Bin Gaith told the AP that the five would continue the struggle to clear their names.

"We have just spent eight months in jail for crimes we have not committed. This is not the end. It's a beginning," bin Gaith said.

In addition to teaching at the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi, bin Ghaith is a decorated air force pilot and has served as a legal adviser to the UAE armed forces until he was taken into custody by federal security agents from his Dubai home in April.

The five were arrested in April after signing an online petition demanding political reforms, including free elections for parliament. UAE's current parliament serves as an advisory body, and its 40 members are either directly appointed by the ruling sheiks or elected by voters hand-picked by the rulers.

The charges against the five also included urging a boycott of the existing, limited form of elections. The last vote, held in September, was only the second election since the founding of the UAE 40 years ago.

The UAE has faced an outcry from rights groups over the trials, which were held in the country's highest court that normally tries terrorism suspects and has no recourse for appeal.

Political activity is severely restricted in the UAE, an oil-rich alliance of seven semiautonomous states, each ruled by a hereditary sheik. There are no official opposition groups in the country and political parties are banned.

In an unprecedented move for the politically quiescent country, 130 people in March signed a petition demanding constitutional and parliamentary changes, free elections and a more equitable distribution of the country's oil wealth.

The five activists in custody were among those who signed the petition.