1. The first two hearings in the trial of 94 intellectuals, activists, and human rights defenders, took place before the Special Security Court within the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 4 and 11 March 2013. A coalition of four human rights organisations – the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) – appointed observer Melanie Gingell, a barrister of England and Wales to monitor and report on the hearings. The coalition’s mission was supported by association with Al Karama, the International Commission of Jurists, a delegation of Turkish lawyers, and the British-based Emirates Centre for Human Rights who were also tasked with observing the trial.
2. On 27 January 2013, the 94 defendants were charged with founding, organising and administering an organisation aimed at overthrowing the government, contrary to article 180 of the penal code. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 15-years’ imprisonment. There is no right of appeal in matters heard in the Special Federal Security Court. The group of defendants is made up of 77 Emiratis, 11 Egyptians, one Emirati now stateless and five others. Thirteen of these defendants are women who are the only ones to have been granted bail. The arrests took place over the twelve months preceding the trial. Some of the 94 have not been arrested and have been described as absconders. Ten of those in custody have reportedly been held in secret detention centres and/or in solitary confinement and have suffered torture and inhumane treatment.
3. The Supreme Court security service prevented international legal observers from entering the court to monitor the proceedings. Members of the international media were also denied entry. Thus there was a breach of the obligation to hold the trial in public and for justice to be seen to be carried out.
4. The authorities presented the observers with procedures in order to gain access to the hearings, which they claimed were open to the public. All these procedures were complied with, which included providing copies of passports, passport photographs and documentation in Arabic – including requests to the presiding judge and the observers’ mandates in the first instance to the security services at the Supreme Court, and then to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
5. The hearing was held under conditions of the highest security. All routes leading to the court were subject to police roadblocks. Observers who tried to approach the area on foot were stopped and their passports examined before being ejected from the area. There were signs that the hotel rooms of the observers were searched while the observers were following the required procedures.
6. Relatives of the defendants and local press were however allowed access to the court, albeit under strict conditions. The following report is therefore based on interviews with those relatives, and reports in the local press. Despite many requests made by representatives of the coalition to meet with a member of the prosecution team and the judges, and to visit the detention centres, these requests were all either denied or ignored. No reasons were given.
7. The coalition welcomes the fact that some aspects of the right to fair trial were respected. The defendants were present during the hearings and were represented by counsel. The defendants were allowed to intervene in the proceedings both in person and through their counsel.
8. The coalition believes however that other aspects of the right to a fair trial have been breached. In so far as the principle of the equality of arms between the prosecution and the defence, the independence and impartiality of the tribunal and the presumption of innocence are concerned, there are serious defects. In summary, the proximity of the prosecution and judge, the failure to provide the defence with the prosecution’s evidence in a timely manner, and the disparity of approach by the tribunal between the defence and the prosecution lawyers are all factors which lead us to conclude that the defendants have not been afforded a fair trial.
9. The coalition believes that there has been a serious breach of the obligation to prevent torture of the defendants whilst in pre-trial detention. We further believe that the court, having heard the allegations of torture, failed to order any investigation of the allegations or to address them in any way. The central piece of evidence against the defendants is the confession of one of them, Ahmed Bin Ghaith Al-Suwaidi. This defendant has spent the last year in solitary confinement at a secret location. The coalition believes that the confession was extracted from him by torture and should therefore be disregarded by the Court as evidence, according to international standards and in particular the UN Convention Against Torture. His appearance at court was distressing and shocking for his relatives: he could hardly stand and he had lost a great deal of weight. According to his relatives, “He seemed like a pale shadow of his former self.” Al-Suwaidi made an emotional plea to the judge calling for protection for himself and his family. He further said that security services had threatened to murder him and his family if he did not change his plea to guilty.
10. The coalition expresses deep concern that many of the defendants in custody have been detained in appalling circumstances at secret locations without access to lawyers or family for long periods of time. It is alleged that the defendants have suffered variously beatings, the lengthy holding of stress positions, electric shocks, and deprivation of sleep. The allegations include that they have in some cases been humiliated by the withholding of adequate food, clothing and warmth and have suffered sexual abuse.
11. The trial is not proceeding on consecutive days and is being heard at a rate of one or two days per week. It is not known how many further hearings will take place. The coalition is concerned that this protracted approach may give rise to a violation of the right to trial within a reasonable time or the right to be released.
12. The coalition calls upon the judge to mount an immediate investigation into the allegations of torture, and if the allegations are found to be true, to punish the perpetrators accordingly.
13. The report concludes that:
- The judge has failed in his duty to investigate credible allegations of torture of the defendants whilst in pre-trial detention.
- The trial is proceeding in violation of internationally recognised standards of a fair trial.