Unfair Trials, Unjust Sentences in UAE

Human Rights Watch

The convictions of at least 44 defendants in the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) mass trial of at least 84 human rights defenders and political dissidents were based on a fundamentally unfair trial, a coalition of human rights groups said today. On July 10, 2024, the Abu Dhabi Federal Appeals Court meted out sentences ranging from between 15 years to life in prison in the UAE's second largest unfair mass trial.

In December 2023, while hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), Emirati authorities brought charges against at least 84 defendants in retaliation for forming an independent advocacy group in 2010, many of whom had already been serving prison sentences for the same or similar offenses. The unfair mass trial was marred by serious due process and fair trial violations, including restricted access to case material and information, limited legal assistance, judges directing witness testimony, violations of the principle of double jeopardy, credible allegations of serious abuse and ill-treatment, and hearings shrouded in secrecy.

"These over-the-top long sentences make a mockery of justice and are another nail in the coffin for the UAE's nascent civil society," said Joey Shea, United Arab Emirates researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The UAE has dragged scores of its most dedicated human rights defenders and civil society members through a shamelessly unfair trial riddled with due process violations and torture allegations."

Given that the charges are based solely on defendants' peaceful practice of their human rights, UAE authorities should immediately overturn these convictions and release all defendants, the groups said.

Among the 44 defendants whose conviction is known, 4 people were sentenced to 15 years in prison and 40 to life in prison, according to the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center, a human rights organization supporting imprisoned human rights defenders in the UAE.

Three of those sentenced to life in prison are an academic, Nasser bin Ghaith, Abdulsalam Darwish al-Marzouqi, and Sultan Bin Kayed al-Qasimi. At least one defendant was acquitted. The verdicts for many of the defendants are not yet known as the authorities have yet to release official details about the convictions and sentences.

In a statement released on January 6, Emirati authorities accused the 84 defendants of "establishing and managing a clandestine terrorist organization in the UAE known as the 'Justice and Dignity Committee'." The charges appear to come from the UAE's abusive 2014 counterterrorism law, which sets out punishments of up to life in prison and even death for anyone who sets up, organizes, or runs such an organization.

At least 60 of the defendants were already convicted in 2013 for their involvement with the Justice and Dignity Committee, according to the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center, including al-Marzouqi and al-Qasimi. That raises concerns that Emirati authorities are violating the principle of double jeopardy, which prohibits trying people twice for the same offense after they had received a final verdict.

The prosecutor did not provide any new evidence, and the evidence cited in the hearings was based entirely on the UAE94 trial, the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center said. "It is the same case as 2013," a relative of one defendant told Human Rights Watch. "There is no new evidence, and it is the same allegations."

In 2013, the grossly unfair "UAE94" trial resulted in convictions of 69 critics of the government, including 8 in absentia, on charges that violated their rights to free expression, association, and assembly. The 69 critics were among 94 people detained beginning in March 2012 in a wave of arbitrary arrests amid an unprecedented crackdown on dissent.

In addition to defendants from the UAE94 case, prominent activists such as Ahmed Mansoor, who is on the Board of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the MENA Division Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch, and academic Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith were put on trial in the new UAE84 case.

UAE security forces arrested Ahmed Mansoor in a late-night house raid on March 20, 2017. In May 2018, the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals' State Security Chamber sentenced Mansoor to 10 years in prison on charges entirely related to his human rights activities. On December 31, 2018, the court of last resort, the Federal Supreme Court, upheld his unjust sentence. In 2017, the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals sentenced Nasser bin Ghaith, a prominent Emirati academic, to 10 years in prison on charges related to his peaceful criticism of the Egyptian and Emirati authorities.

"Regrettably, these sentences were entirely foreseeable. From the outset, it was clear that this trial was merely a façade designed to perpetuate the detention of prisoners of conscience even after their sentences had been served," said Mohamed Al-Zaabi, director of the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center. "This trial not only violates the principle of double jeopardy but also contravenes all forms of legal norms."

Family members have also expressed concern about the partiality of the presiding judge. During a hearing on December 21, one family member said, the judge "put sentences in the mouth of the witness." The judge interrupted and intervened during the testimony by correcting the witness and dictating statements to him, family members and the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center said. The Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center said that at one point a police officer handed the witness a paper, which the witness then used to answer the remaining questions.

The trial was shrouded in secrecy, and Emirati authorities prevented defendants' lawyers from freely accessing case files and court documents. Lawyers have apparently not obtained physical or electronic copies of the court documents and were only able to view the documents on a screen in a secure room under the supervision of security officers. Lawyers were not allowed to take photos of the documents and were only permitted to take handwritten notes.

While the January 6 statement from the Emirates News Agency (WAM), the UAE's official state news agency, claimed the case was "public," Emirati authorities severely restricted access to the hearings, even for family members, and kept basic details of the case secret, including the names of all the defendants.

Many of the defendants have been held in incommunicado solitary confinement for nearly a year. Phone calls and family visits have been prohibited from between 10 months to a year, except for brief phone calls in December 2023, informing family members of the existence of the new case and instructing them to hire lawyers.

During the trial, defendants have repeatedly described abusive detention conditions, including physical assaults, lack of access to medical care and required medicines, incessant loud music, and forced nudity.

Emirati authorities have not investigated the alleged abusive conditions, nor held those responsible for any unlawful acts to account.

The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules) state that "solitary confinement shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review, and only pursuant to the authorization by a competent authority." The UN special rapporteur on torture has said that indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition, citing scientific studies that have established that even a few days of social isolation cause irreparable harm, including lasting psychological damage.

"It is a real tragedy that so many activists and human rights defenders will remain in prison for decades, deprived of watching their children grow up, for no other reason than calling for a better future for Emiratis," said Khalid Ibrahim, the Gulf Center for Human Rights's executive director. "The authorities must release them immediately if they want to retain the respect of the international community."


  • Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center (EDAC)
  • Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GC4HR)
  • Human Rights Watch
  • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  • International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  • MENA Rights Group
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