Dubai: International rights groups on Sunday called on the United Arab Emirates to release from custody five political activists who have campaigned for democratic reforms in the oil-rich Gulf country.
The UAE has not faced street protests like those that have roiled other countries in the Middle East, but authorities have moved aggressively to silence pro-reform advocates. Among the five arrested are a prominent blogger and a frequent lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris` Sorbonne university.
The activists have been charged with insulting the UAE`s rulers and using an online forum to conspire against the state. They were arraigned during a closed-door hearing in Abu Dhabi`s Federal Supreme Court last month. Another hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday.
The rights groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, said in a joint statement Sunday the activists should be released because the government has presented "no legitimate evidence" to support charges against them.
Political activity is severely restricted in the UAE, an alliance of seven semiautonomous states allied to the US, each ruled by a hereditary sheik. There are no official opposition groups 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, including blogger Ahmed Mansour and economic professor Nasser bin Ghaith, all signed the petition.
Mansour led an online political forum popular with Emiratis, who represent only 10 percent of the country`s 8 million inhabitants. The other arrested activists were participating in the discussions as well, until authorities blocked the forum`s site last year.
Mansour faces additional charges for inciting others to break the law, calling for an election boycott, and for demonstrations.
"In this day and age, with all that is going on in the region, it is disturbing and absurd that the UAE is prosecuting activists simply because they spoke out for democracy," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in the rights groups` statement.
Abu Dhabi is the largest and richest emirate in the Gulf union. It is controlled by the Al Nahyan dynasty that also wields considerable power over the smaller sheikdoms, including the regional commercial hub of Dubai.
The current federal parliament serves as an advisory body. Its 40 members are either directly appointed by the ruling sheiks or chosen by group citizens hand-picked by the rulers to vote.