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Cop28: UAE slapped fresh charges on high-profile political prisoners during summit, says group

As Cop28 was underway, UAE launched mass trial with 87 defendants facing potential life sentences or the death penalty
Protesters at Cop28 demand release of Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor and democracy advocate Mohamed al-Siddiq, both handed terrorism charges this month (AFP)

Emirati authorities charged 87 people, including some of the country's highest profile political prisoners, with terrorism as the Cop28 climate talks were underway, a human rights group has said.

Those charged include members of the "UAE94", like human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Roken, who were convicted in the UAE's largest-ever mass trial in 2013, the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center (Edac) has reported.

Also freshly charged, according to Edac, are rights activist, blogger and poet Ahmed Mansoor and economist and human rights defender Nasser bin Ghaith.

Many embroiled in the new mass trial, which began with a hearing on 7 December, have remained imprisoned despite completing their sentences earlier this year.

But there are also newly-detained individuals, including Khalaf al-Romaithi, the Emirati businessman who vanished from Jordan where he was arrested on a warrant while travelling this May, only to surface a week later in the UAE.

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Hamad al-Shamsi, Edac's executive director, told Middle East Eye he believes the new trial reflects the pressure that Emirati authorities came under to justify why many of the men were still in jail.

"Cop28 was going on and people were asking. So instead of saying, we are keeping them [in prison], they said there are actually new charges against them," Shamsi said, referring to the climate summit that kicked off on 30 November. 

But the new trial carries much harsher potential sentences. Most of the individuals who were already imprisoned were carrying out sentences of 10 years, but now could face life sentences or even the death penalty, he said.

MEE reached out to the Emirati authorities for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

'Already an absurdity'

Shamsi said the families of the UAE94 detainees, over 60 in total, have lost all contact with their relatives since June.

But before they disappeared, he said, there was a sense that something was about to shift. Some detainees asked their families if they had new charges while others suggested they might be released.

"It was mixed messages, between positive and negative. We weren't really sure," he said.

Then when the new charges came, as tens of thousands of delegates from around the world converged on the UAE for Cop28, Shamsi said he was surprised authorities hadn't waited until the conference was over. He is disappointed by the new trial.

"We hoped that the UAE would close this chapter because for more than 12 years now, people are in detention and they are suffering for nothing," he said.

James Lynch, the co-director of the UK-based research and advocacy group FairSquare, was at Cop28 last week, and said the news and its timing "beggars belief".

"It was already an absurdity that not a single Emirati critical of the government could attend the talks," Lynch said.

"The decision to lay new terrorism charges on this scale in the middle of the talks, when UAE is under the global spotlight, is a giant slap in the face to the country's human rights community and the Cop process."

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Shamsi said the 7 December hearing was held in two rooms at the Abu Dhabi Federal Appeal Court, with the charged individuals in one room and family members who had heard about the hearing in another room watching proceedings on a screen.

Some families were not present because they hadn't heard about the new charges. Others, Shamsi said, feel hiring a lawyer for up to 100,000 dirham (around $27,000) was "a waste of time and money" because it would not change the outcome of the new trial. 

"To be honest, they have lost hope," he said of some of the families. "They can't do anything. People from inside [the UAE], they can't speak out."

The next hearing for the group is scheduled for Thursday.

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