By Yara Bayoumy
DUBAI (Reuters) - With a small, wealthy local population, the United Arab Emirates seemed immune to both Islamist militancy and revolts of the Arab Spring. So when it said it had exposed a "secret organization" plotting to depose the ruling sheikhs, astonishment reigned.
Many of the so-called UAE94 group belonged to al-Islah, an Islamist association suspected of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement which came to power in Egypt last year and advocates Islamic principles in everything from politics to education.
After a trial that began in March, the group, which includes lawyers, doctors and academics, were sentenced on Tuesday. Eight were sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison, 61 received jail terms between seven and 10 years, and 25 were acquitted.
The case highlighted the UAE's sensitivities about political dissent in the wake of Arab Spring protests which have spawned a rise in the power and influence wielded by Islamists.
But family members said that the charges were cooked up by authorities fearful of any call for change under a Gulf monarchy that bans all forms of political parties.
"They now want to say that (al-Islah) are demanding the same as the Arab Spring, a revolution on power and its authorities ... Al-Islah's ceiling of demands was to stop vicious penetration of security in civil life ... this really disturbed them," said Khalid al-Rukn, whose brother, a prominent rights lawyer, was sentenced to 10 years on Tuesday.
"They are scared that the effects of the Arab Spring will reach the Emirates. And that is impossible," said another family member, citing the generous welfare system most Emiratis enjoy.
Reuters met the families of the UAE94 twice in recent months to learn more about al-Islah's activities, their motives and why they feel the government, which once sanctioned the creation of the group, is now cracking down on it.
The family members said they have had scholarships revoked, jobs denied, are sometimes prevented from travelling abroad, have received death and rape threats on social media, and have been shunned by some family and friends through fear.
While they acknowledged al-Islah has a similar ideology to the Muslim Brotherhood, they denied any organizational links to the Islamist group and said they seek a dialogue with UAE authorities for greater freedoms in civil life.
SHEIKH'S COUSIN SENTENCED
Al-Islah, which means reform, was set up in 1974 with the approval of then UAE Vice-President Sheikh Rashid bin Maktoum as an organization promoting stricter adherence to Islamic values.
The group's origins date back to the 1950s and 1960s when Emiratis sought out religious knowledge either when they travelled abroad, or from Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinian Islamists who had settled in the UAE.
The group's activities mainly focused on organizing charity events, Islamic lectures and student competitions.
By 1994, the group was dissolved in Dubai but Sheikh Saqr al-Qassimi, the-then ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, an emirate to the north, "rejected the dissolution of al-Islah because he felt it played a role in preserving the youth", said Rukn.
Heading al-Islah is Sultan al-Qassimi, the late sheikh's nephew. Sultan al-Qassimi is also a cousin of the current ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, Sheikh Saud al-Qassimi.
That a member of a ruling family was so publicly detained was surprising in a region where powerful connections are generally seen as protection from the hand of the law. Before his arrest in April 2012, Qassimi interacted personally with many of the Emirates' rulers, his son said.
"A group of armed men in civilian clothes entered the house and took my father. They did not show any official documents, they did not identify themselves," Qassimi's son, Abdullah, told Reuters.
He was then taken to the Ras al-Khaimah ruler's palace where he was kept under what amounted to house arrest for five months in the grounds, Abdullah said. "He was given a paper which he was asked to sign but he refused to even look at it."
In September, Qassimi was taken to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, but for a month his family had no idea where he was and they were not allowed to see him, Abdullah said. Eventually they visited him at a state security prosecution office in Abu Dhabi.
He looked dazed, Abdullah said. "When we asked him the size of the place where he was being held, he replied 'slightly larger than a grave.' We asked him, 'Do you see the sun.' He said, 'no'."
TRIAL FREE AND FAIR, UAE SAYS
The UAE Ministry of Justice said "the case was investigated, prosecuted and tried before an independent judiciary in full compliance with the applicable procedural, evidentiary and legal standards of the UAE judicial system."
It was committed to "the full application of the due process of law in the event of suspected threats to national security."
But family members said the group posed no threat.
"... Al-Islah in the United Arab Emirates is an idea that is influenced by some thoughts ... most of which are from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt," said Hassan Mohammed al-Mansouri, whose father was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
"The political system is a red line. We do not accept any foreign country or organization, even if it is similar to ours in our ideology, to interfere in the policies of the state," said Rukn, wearing the traditional Gulf Arab white robe.
"I believe in the ideology, but if the ideology leads to destabilizing society inside the United Arab Emirates or in Gulf society, then we do not take it."
The relatives denied al-Islah received any funding from abroad, saying it only had membership fees. Since its board was forced to resign in 2011, al-Islah members have met at each other's homes and carried out activities in individual institutions.
UAE authorities said they 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.
Asked whether his father had met the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Abdullah, Qassimi's son, would only say: "He is in contact with symbols of Islamist movements worldwide."
Those in jail have said they have been tortured. UAE officials have dismissed the accusation.
Authorities also said the group had sought to infiltrate state institutions including schools, universities and ministries.
"There isn't a single recording or paper in the state prosecutor or state security's office that has unequivocal proof that this group has outside contact or internal activities that confront the founding principles of the United Arab Emirates and the government and is planning to overthrow it," Rukn said.
In March 2011 a group of Emirati activists and intellectuals signed a petition which called for granting direct elections to the Federal National Council, the UAE's quasi-parliament.
Some of the signatories were arrested and later released, but UAE authorities have been watchful since then. Some of those who have signed the petition are among the UAE94.
Rukn insisted the group did not seek the removal of the ruling families despite reservations that they had allowed the UAE, a tourist hub, to be too open to Western influences.
"Islamic religion rejects decadence in the streets, rejects alcohol, rejects what's happening. For me to go to a mall and find a woman wearing transparent clothing through which you can see her underwear, is that really the ethics of the Emirates?"
"In the 1980s people used to go to Bangkok and Thailand for prostitution, now they come here. There are parties for homosexuals. This is all against Islam," he said.
(Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Jon Hemming/Mark Heinrich)