Freed UAE activists vow to press reform campaign

AP News
Posted: Nov 29, 2011 12:43 PM
Freed UAE activists vow to press reform campaign

Seven months in prison for signing an internet petition is not stopping five United Arab Emirates activists from pressing for reforms. Just after they were convicted, pardoned and released, they vowed to campaign for more freedom in the tightly ruled Gulf union.

That the five were arrested at all for taking part in an internet campaign, as opposed to marching, protesting, sitting in at government buildings or more militant activities seen elsewhere in the Mideast, shows how rigid the system of controls is in the UAE, and how determined the country's rulers are to keep the Arab Spring uprisings out of the oil-rich federation.

The UAE5, as they're known, want reform, and that could be a recipe for future confrontations.

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

Along with at least 130 other Emiratis, the five men signed an online petition in March, calling for constitutional changes and free elections. That led to their arrest in early April.

On Sunday, after being held in prison for almost eight months, the five were convicted of insulting the UAE's leadership, endangering national security and inciting people to protest.

Then a day later, they received a presidential pardon and were freed.

One of the five, Ahmed Mansour is a prominent blogger. Another, Nasser bin Gaith, is an economics professor who has lectured at Paris' Sorbonne university in Abu Dhabi.

The two told The Associated Press that they spent days in solitary confinement in Abu Dhabi's Al Wathba prison. The rest of the time they were held with convicted killers, terrorists, rapists, adulterous, drug dealers and pirates.

Abu Gaith said he was repeatedly harassed by other prisoners and frequently put in solitary confinement, once even after he had demanded to see a doctor. He spent weeks shackled and handcuffed in his cell day and at night.

"Whenever they asked me what my crime was, I told them my case is not criminal, it's political," Mansour told the AP. "I was calm in jail because I knew I did not do anything to deserve a single day in prison."

If the government's intention by arresting, convicting, sentencing and then releasing them was to intimidate the five, it appears to have failed.

"I have not committed any crime," bin Gaith said. "I only offered advice to make my country better. And that's what I will continue to do."

For years, bin Gaith was part of the ruling elite's inner circle. The 42-year-old U.S.-educated economist and lawyer is a decorated UAE air force pilot and served as a legal adviser to the country's armed forces until he was detained.

He has often criticized Gulf rulers for rejecting all but the most limited of political reforms and for failing to provide a legal framework for the fast-paced economic development of the past decade. Just days before his arrest, he questioned the cash-for-stability remedies by Gulf rulers to blunt Arab Spring-inspired demands.

"It's beyond me why they arrested me or the other four," bin Gaith told the AP in an interview. "And why was I treated in such a way? Because I said the wind of change is blowing, and we need to do something?"

Though they were released on the strength of a presidential pardon, the five still maintain the status of convicted criminals, their defense lawyer said.

Bin Gaith said that alongside the reform campaign, he will fight to clear their names.

Mansour said he hopes their ordeal will inspire people to seek reforms in their country's political and legal system that remains a mix of Islamic laws and tribal rules.

Mansour, 41, worked as an engineer for a communications company until he was taken into custody from his Dubai home in April. In addition to writing a blog, Mansour also led an online forum that was popular with Emiratis who were unhappy with their country's fast-paced development at the expense of traditions.

Authorities blocked the site in February last year, and the court on Sunday ordered it shut down as part of the verdict against Mansour that also included a three-year prison sentence. The site remains blocked.

"They did everything to make me a criminal, but I consider fighting for human rights and free speech as part of my patriotic duty," Mansour said.

The other four, including bin Gaith, were sentenced to two-year jail terms each by a federal security court that normally tries terrorism suspects and has no recourse for appeal.

"It's a mixed feeling to be out," bin Gaith told the AP after his release. "I am with my family, but our arrests mark the beginning of a police state in the UAE."