By Raissa Kasolowsky and Rania El Gamal
ABU DHABI/DUBAI (Reuters) - Three Emirati Islamists, including a prominent lawyer, were arrested in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, relatives and activists said, extending a crackdown on political dissidents in the Gulf oil producer.
The arrests brought to 20 the number of dissidents detained since April. Most of them have been Islamists, targeted by a government clampdown amid concerns they may be emboldened by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in other Arab countries.
Interior Ministry officials were not available for comment on the detentions. On Sunday, officials announced the UAE was investigating a foreign-linked group planning "crimes against the security of the state".
The UAE, which allows no organized political opposition, has avoided the political unrest that has toppled four Arab heads of state since last year, thanks in part to its cradle-to-grave welfare system.
But it has moved swiftly against dissidents and last year stripped citizenship from Islamists it deemed a security threat. It also jailed activists who called for more power for a semi-elected advisory council.
Pro-democracy activists and family said lawyer Mohammed al-Roken, who represented the seven Islamists stripped of citizenship, his son and son-in-law were detained on Tuesday. All are linked to the local Islamist group al-Islah (Reform), which has been the focal point of the UAE crackdown.
"He (Roken) was taken by security officials at 2 a.m. when he was out with the driver looking for his son and son-in-law, who were also arrested," a relative told Reuters.
UAE authorities are worried that the political successes of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia after the toppling of long-serving authoritarian rulers there could inspire dissent at home.
"This is the first time in 40 years (since the UAE was formed in 1971) that we have seen so many arrests. This is unheard of," said Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdullah.
"It's mainly aimed at Islamists now but this is a signal to everybody: zero tolerance for political organizations in the UAE, zero tolerance for Islamists, and zero tolerance for upfront criticism."
UAE Islamists say their ideology is similar to that of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood but say they have no direct links with the group, which is seen as a mentor for Islamist groups in the region.
Their demands include more civil rights and greater power for the Federal National Council, a quasi-parliamentary body that advises the government but has no legislative power.
The men detained over the past days are mostly from the more religiously conservative emirates such as Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah, which are also less affluent than the oil-rich capital Abu Dhabi and trade hub Dubai.
Many are well-known figures and include a ruling family member, who is being held at the ruler's palace in Ras al-Khaimah. Most were religiously active in their communities and some ran Koranic schools and religious institutes.
"The (Muslim Brotherhood) ideology is inherently political and that is what is the threat to the UAE. It doesn't matter that they are Islamists, the point is that they have a political opinion at all and that they say it," said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha.
One Emirati activist residing abroad echoed that charge, dismissing allegations of foreign-run cells as baseless. He requested anonymity.
"These claims are just made up, to get public opinion against (the Islamists). They say this campaign is against Islamists but it's clearly aimed at all activists, people who are asking for political reform, who want more freedom of opinion," he said, adding that he was not an Islah member.
U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said the crackdown looked like an excuse to silence legitimate demands.
"It appears that national security is increasingly being used as a pretext to clamp down on peaceful activism, to stifle calls for constitutional reform and on human rights issues such as statelessness," Colville told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
Authorities on Tuesday also closed the office of the Arabian Gulf Center for Educational Consultations in the northern Ajman emirate, said its owner, who has links to Islah.
Diplomats and analysts say the perceived harshness of the crackdown could lead to a backlash among ordinary people.
"They are trying to get more stability but actually all this is leading to more instability, because it creates resentment and fear. And it's like cutting off the head of the Hydra, another head will just grow back," RUSI's Stephens said.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Jon Boyle)