By Yara Bayoumy
ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Sixty-one convicted coup plotters received jail terms of up to 10 years in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday after a trial that targeted Islamists and drew criticism from human rights groups.
Among those sentenced were academics, lawyers and members of prominent UAE families, including a cousin of the ruler of one of the seven emirates in the oil-rich federation, a longtime foe of Islamist groups seeking a role in politics and state affairs.
Eight more defendants were sentenced in absentia by the Federal Supreme Court to 15 years in prison, in a judgment denounced by human rights groups as evidence of growing intolerance in the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab country.
"These verdicts cement the UAE's reputation as a serious abuser of basic human rights," said Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Today's judgments mark yet another low point for the UAE's worsening human rights record."
Alkarama, a Swiss-based Arab human rights group, condemned the verdicts as politically driven.
"If the UAE wants to maintain their image of being a law-abiding member of the international community, the verdict should be quashed, they should be released immediately, and their records expunged," it said in a statement.
The state news agency WAM said that apart from the eight men sentenced in absentia, 56 were jailed for 10 years and five for seven years, while 25 were acquitted, including all 13 women defendants.
Dozens of people have been detained in a crackdown on Islamists in the past year amid heightened worries among officials about a spillover of unrest in other Arab countries.
The trial, which rights groups have said included "flagrant flaws" in procedure, was widely seen as an effort to tackle what the UAE says is a threat from the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Many of the 94 defendants belong to al-Islah, a group which the UAE says has links to Egypt's Brotherhood. Al-Islah denies this, but says it shares some of the Brotherhood's ideology.
The defendants, known as UAE94, were accused of "belonging to an illegal, secret organization ... that aims to counter the foundations of this state in order to seize power and of contacting foreign entities and groups to implement this plan".
The defendants had denied the charges, and some said they had been abused in detention, an accusation the state denied.
International media have been barred from attending the court hearings, which began in March. On Tuesday witnesses said police blocked roads outside the court and kept reporters away.
A British lawyer, Melanie Gingell, mandated by several human rights groups to attend the hearing, was informed at the last minute that she could not do so, the groups said in a statement.
RIPPLES FROM ARAB UNREST
Attorney General Salem Saeed Kubaish said in January the defendants had sought to infiltrate state institutions, including schools, universities and ministries.
He said the accused, all UAE nationals, had invested money from Brotherhood membership fees and charity funds to set up commercial enterprises and real estate investments held in their own names to conceal their activities from the state.
A UAE official, who declined to be named, said the case was important because it involved a threat to national security.
"We have full confidence in the UAE judiciary to issue sentences they see fit," he said. "The UAE considers the trial to have taken place in a fair and legal manner."
One of the region's most politically stable nations, largely thanks to its oil wealth and cradle-to-grave welfare system, the UAE has seen none of the violent turmoil that has shaken other parts of the Middle East and North Africa in the past two years.
But some UAE Islamists, inspired by the successes of counterparts in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, have stepped up their activities, angering the authorities in a country where no political opposition is permitted.
Rights groups had urged authorities to grant full public access to the trial. They did not do so, but a source close to the government said it had occurred in a "very transparent manner".
The defendants said they had been insulted, threatened and in some cases subjected to physical abuse after arrest. UAE authorities have dismissed the accusations.
Separately, the UAE said last month it would try 30 Emiratis and Egyptians accused of setting up an illegal branch of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, further straining UAE-Egyptian relations.
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habboush, Sami Aboudi and Amena Bakr, Editing by William Maclean)