First day in court for Emiratis over insult charges

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Five nationals deny charges of insulting rulers of the UAE, threatening state security

A pro-democracy blogger, a university lecturer and three others denied charges on Tuesday of insulting the UAE’s rulers, in a case gauging the Gulf state’s fears of citizen revolts sweeping the region.

The UAE, a key US ally and leading world oil producer with a per capita income of $47,000, has not seen the kind of mass anti-government protests that have reached as close as neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.

Yet with the economy dented by the 2008 global slowdown and Dubai’s 2009 debt crisis, and moves afoot to increase the number of those eligible for the parliament-style Federal National Council (FNC), the UAE’s political sands may be shifting.

The five men appearing at an Abu Dhabi court are accused of “acts that threaten state security and public order”, and “insulting the president, vice president and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi”, the state news agency said in April.

One defendant is blogger and rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, from Ras al-Khaimah, among of the UAE’s poorer emirates. He had joined a petition demanding wider political representation and legislative powers for the FNC.

Another is Nasser bin Ghaith, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of France’s Sorbonne University. He published an online article on Mansoor’s forum, ‘UAE Hewar’, criticising what he called Gulf states’ attempt to avoid political reform by buying off their populaces with increased social spending.

They and the three other alleged regime critics – Fahad Salim al-Shehhi, a friend of Mansoor also involved with the forum, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq – entered not-guilty pleas, their lawyers said outside the court.

The trial will resume on July 18 to begin hearing witnesses, the lawyers said.

A crowd of some 100 men rallied to denounce the defendants.

“We are all Khalifa,” they chanted, referring to UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, head of the Nahyan family that also rules Abu Dhabi.

“It was a shock. We did not expect that there are people in the country who will betray the state,” said Khalifa al Qubaisi, a member of the UAE national Judo team, who joined the protest.

“We were insulted when [Mansour] said the people who live in the country are getting paid by the government to remain silent,” said fellow demonstrator al-Fandi al-Mazrouei, an economics student.

The UAE – where Emiratis make up only some 20 percent of an over 5 million population – this year increased the number of citizens eligible for nomination by local rulers to vote or participate in FNC elections.

State media said last month the UAE would invest $1.6bn on infrastructure in its north, whose citizens have benefited least from the vast oil wealth in the capital Abu Dhabi and from Dubai’s trade- and property-fuelled development.

Abu Dhabi’s government said on Monday it would spend AED7bn ($1.9bn) in housing loans.

Some 160 people signed a petition submitted to Khalifa in March calling for free, democratic elections for all Emiratis.

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