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UAE keeps pro-democracy activists in jail despite serving sentences

Rights group says four prisoners should have been released last June, adding that Covid-19 poses serious risk to 'vulnerable' detainees
Skyline of Dubai, UAE's biggest city (AFP/File photo)

The United Arab Emirates is holding five political prisoners at a notorious facility in Abu Dhabi's desert, despite the men having completed their sentences, a rights group said.

The International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) said in a statement on Friday that four of the men, jailed following a controversial mass trial known as the "UAE 94", should have been released on 16 July 2019.

Another prisoner was supposed to be released from prison last month, but also remains in custody, ICFUAE said.

"We call on the Emirati government to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally," it added.

The UAE 94 case was a mass trial in 2013 involving 94 people who were charged with trying to overthrow the Emirati government, a charge they denied.

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It resulted in the conviction of 69 people - eight in absentia - who received sentences of as long as 15 years. 

Two years earlier, the 94 had reportedly signed a petition calling on the Emirati government to institute a relatively modest set of democratic reforms.

The signatories were said to call for a fully elected Federal National Council with full regulatory powers and universal suffrage, a retreat of the security state and basic human rights within the existing framework of a constitutional monarchy. 

Among those jailed were judges and lawyers, including Mohammed al-Roken, prominent for his human rights work, and student blogger Khalifa al-Nuaimi.

Some of the prisoners later claimed they were tortured by authorities, with one saying his fingernails were pulled out, while another said his shoulder was dislocated when he was reportedly attacked by a guard.

Two prisoners separately reported being locked in the boots of cars - one of whom almost choked to death from gas fumes, according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights.

The ICFUAE warned on Friday that with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, the prisoners, who are languishing at a facility known for its dire conditions and nicknamed the "Guantanamo of the UAE", were unnecessarily being placed in harms way.

"Prisoners remain one of the most vulnerable groups of people to the disease," it added.