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(New York) -- The decision to commute the sentences of five activists recognizes that they should not have been prosecuted in the first place, but authorities should also expunge the convictions from their records, an international coalition of seven human rights organizations said today.
On November 28, 2011, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) president commuted the sentences by the Federal Supreme Court for "publicly insulting" UAE rulers.
While commuting the sentences was a positive step, UAE authorities should now protect the activists, known among their supporters as the "UAE 5," and their associates from pro-government vigilantes, and immediately investigate the numerous threats against them, said the coalition, which includes Alkarama (Dignity), Amnesty International, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Front Line Defenders, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Human Rights Watch, and Index on Censorship.
The authorities should conduct an independent judicial review into their arrests and trial, which did not meet international due process standards, and compensate them for the more than seven months they spent in prison, the coalition said.
"Freeing the UAE 5 is a positive step but they should never have spent a single day behind bars, let alone seven months," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "A commutation alone will not undo the government’s terrible mishandling of this case."
On November 27, a panel of four judges found all five men guilty and sentenced Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent UAE reformer, to three years in prison, and the others to two years. In contravention of international fair trial standards, the detainees had no right of appeal because the case was prosecuted under state security procedures.
The men were released on the evening of November 28, after the UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, commuted the sentences. Representatives from the rights coalition who met with Mansoor upon his release said he looked frail and thin from his incarceration, which included a two-week hunger strike. Mansoor said he had lost 53 pounds during his time in jail.
Commutation of the sentences may still leave the activists with a criminal record, a lawyer for the men said. UAE authorities should exonerate them and expunge the conviction from their records, which otherwise will make it difficult for the men to find work and travel, the groups said.
"The release of these men will not prevent such a travesty of justice from happening again," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International. "For this release to be more than a public relations exercise, it needs to be matched by the immediate decriminalization of defamation and an overhaul of the justice system."
The groups said that the UAE should invite United Nations experts on freedom of expression and on the independence of judges and lawyers. A report by a trial observer representing the coalition found flagrant flaws in the administration of this case. Her recommendations included the dismissal of charges against the five.
The activists and their families have been the targets of a vicious smear campaign of threats, slander, and intimidation that authorities have failed to investigate or prosecute, the rights groups said. In the most recent incident, on November 27, a pro-government supporter assaulted a relative of one of the detainees and shouted threats and obscenities outside the courtroom, despite the heavy security presence after the verdict. An independent report on November 25 written on behalf of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, with research assistance from Human Rights Watch, documented the threats by government sympathizers and the atmosphere of impunity in which they have been made.
"The UAE 5 may finally be free but their personal security is still at risk because of a smear campaign carried out with impunity," said Rachid Mesli, director of Alkarama’s Legal Department. "The authorities should stop looking the other way and start prosecuting those making death threats."
The five activists were arrested in April. Their trial opened on June 14 in Abu Dhabi. They are: Ahmed Mansoor, an engineer and blogger and a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee and a member of ANHRI’s network; Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist and university lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi; and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis.
The five were charged under article 176 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to publicly insult top officials, and with using the banned online political forum UAE Hewar. The rights groups reviewed the messages allegedly posted by the accused, none of which do more than criticize government policy or political leaders. There is no evidence that the men used or incited violence in the course of their political activities. The rights groups have said that the prosecution of the five men violates the right to freedom of expression under the UAE’s constitution as well as international human rights law.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom and dignity are denied.
For more information, please visit: www.amnestyusa.org.