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UAE puts 'al-Qaeda cell' on trial

Nine men stand accused in Abu Dhabi of recruiting fighters and collecting donations for the al-Nusra Front in Syria
There are said to be thousands of foreigners who have travelled to Syria to fight in the civil war (AFP)

A court in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) held a hearing on Monday in the trial of an “al-Qaeda cell” of nine men accused of supporting the al-Nusra Front in Syria, according to the state news agency WAM.

The prosecution has accused seven of the defendants of “joining the terrorist al-Qaeda organisation and forming a cell in the UAE to promote its ideas”, WAM reported.

It said the men had tried to "recruit members to join al-Nusra Front that is fighting the Syrian government", adding they also raised money that they "sent to Al-Nusra".

The two other defendants were accused of running a website promoting al-Qaeda's ideology and aimed at recruiting fighters "to execute terror acts outside the country", WAM said. One of the defendants is being tried in absentia, local media had reported previously.

Local press have previously said the defendants, most of whom are from North Africa and whose trial began 6 May, were accused of plotting attacks in the UAE but the WAM statement did not mention these charges.

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Abu Dhabi announced in April 2013 it had dismantled an “al-Qaeda cell” planning attacks in the country, although they have not elaborated on this perceived threat. Despite the government saying they are under threat from terrorism the UAE has remained mercifully free from terror attacks.

Activists have questioned the likelihood that al-Qaeda are operating in the country, suggesting there may be more malevolent motivations behind the accusations.

“There is little to suggest al-Qaeda have a presence in the UAE, and it is far more likely state security are using the fear caused by announcing a ‘terror cell’ to justify their continued repression of legitimate and peaceful activists,” said an Emirati human rights activist who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

The UAE jailed more than 60 people last year, most of them members of a local religious society, for “belonging to an illegal organisation that aims to…seize power”. Human rights groups criticised the trial, which included two prominent human rights lawyers as defendants, for lacking due process and involving evidence gained through torture, accusations authorities vigorously denied.

Citizens who do go to fight in the Syrian war, however, have caused nervousness among Gulf States with authorities concerned returning fighters may cause problems at home.

Saudi Arabia announced in February they will jail citizens who fight in Syria for between three and 20 years, according to a royal decree. It is estimated that up to 1,200 Saudis have gone to fight in Syria, encouraged by prominent religious clerics in the kingdom.

Other Gulf States have introduced legislation outlawing citizens from fighting in foreign wars, including in Bahrain where there is a five year prison sentence for anyone who joins a conflict overseas.

The trial in the UAE was adjourned on Monday and will continue on 26 May.

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