Summary and Current Status
On November 28, 2011, Nasser bin Ghaith, a United Arab Emirates’ economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne), was granted a presidential pardon and released from prison after more than seven months in detention. The previous day he had been convicted by the Federal Supreme Court of Abu Dhabi of “publicly insulting” the UAE’s president, vice president, and crown prince in an online political discussion and sentenced to a two-year prison term. Denied bail, UAE authorities had held Nasser bin Ghaith in “preventive custody” since his arrest on April 10, 2011. His trial, which began on June 14, 2011, failed to meet international standards for fairness. Amnesty International considered Nasser bin Ghaith to be a “prisoner of conscience.”
Nasser bin Ghaith is a lecturer in international economics law at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne). Since 2009, he has also worked as a legal adviser to the Emirates armed forces, negotiating contracts with major defense contractors in the United States and Europe. According to Human Rights Watch, he holds a doctorate from the University of Essex School of Law and a Masters in International Law from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. According to Amnesty International (AI), he is the author of several recent online articles advocating political reform in the United Arab Emirates.
On March 9, 2011, Nasser bin Ghaith was one of a group of more than 130 academics, lawyers, and pro-democracy activists who petitioned the president of the UAE to introduce universal direct elections for the country’s Federal National Council (FNC) and to give it legislative powers. (Currently, the FNC is a 40-member consultative body that examines and amends, but cannot veto, federal legislation. Half of its members are appointed by the president, and half are elected by a National Electoral Committee.)
On April 10, 2011, UAE state security forces arrested Nasser bin Ghaith following a four-hour search of his home in Dubai during which computers, documents, and family videos were confiscated. Nasser bin Ghaith reportedly was shackled in the back seat of a state security vehicle and not permitted to go to the bathroom or perform his prayers for 18 hours. AI reported that, three days later, he was interrogated in Abu Dhabi by the public prosecutor for the State Security Court, reportedly about derogatory statements he is alleged to have made in October 2010 about Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
According to press reports, UAE Attorney General Salim Saeed Kubaish stated on April 25 that Nasser bin Ghaith and four other men were in "preventive custody" for "instigation, breaking laws and perpetrating acts that pose a threat to state security, undermining the public order, opposing the government system, and insulting the president, the vice president and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.” Security officials reportedly told Nasser bin Ghaith’s lawyer that he would be produced at a holding center in Dubai, but they then failed to bring him there. He subsequently was denied bail and remained held at al-Wathba Prison until his release.
In early June 2011, Nasser bin Ghaith and the four other detainees were arraigned on charges brought against them under two articles of the UAE Penal Code. Article 176 permits up to five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “publicly humiliates the State President, its flag or national emblem.” Article 8 widens the application of that provision to include the vice president, members of the Supreme Council of the Federation, and others. Nasser bin Ghaith is also accused of having used the online political discussion forum UAE Hewar “to conspire against the safety and security of the State in association with foreign powers.” (UAE officials banned the website after Nasser bin Ghaith posted his messages on it.)
On June 14, 2011, the trial of Nasser bin Ghaith and his four co-defendants began before the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi, a court that hears cases of terrorism and other anti-state crimes. At this initial session, he and the other defendants reportedly pleaded not guilty. Shortly thereafter, Amnesty International adopted Nasser bin Ghaith as a “prisoner of conscience” and called for his immediate and unconditional release on the grounds that he was detained solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental right to freedom of expression. Verdicts of the Federal Supreme Court’s three-judge panel are final and not subject to appeal.
At the next three sessions of the trial, held behind closed doors, testimony was given by four prosecution witnesses. Reports indicate that the court did not permit defense lawyers to question one of the witnesses and allocated insufficient time for questions to be directed to the other three. At the beginning of the third session on September 26, 2011, the defendants requested that the proceedings be opened to the public. When the presiding judge responded that the trial was closed for the defendants’ “own safety,” Nasser bin Ghaith reportedly stated, “If that is the reason why the hearing is closed, then we will accept the risk.” Although the hearing that day proceeded behind closed doors, international observers and family members were permitted to attend subsequent trial sessions
The international human rights community closely monitored the court proceedings. On July 17, 2011, four human rights organizations—Amnesty International, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Front Line Defenders, and Human Rights Watch—jointly called for the immediate and unconditional release of the “UAE 5.” They said that they had reviewed the messages posted by the defendants on the UAE Hewar website and found that none of them “do more than criticize government policy or political leaders.” The Human Rights Institute, an independent entity of the International Bar Association, also called for their immediate release.