ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The trial of 30 suspects charged with having links to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood opened in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday amid a widening crackdown on Islamist opposition groups in Arab Gulf countries, the state media and a rights group said.
The suspects — 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis — denied the charges, which include trying to obtain security data, the media said. Six of the Egyptians are being tried in absentia. The group is also charged with establishing an illegal branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and collecting donations without permission in the United Arab Emirates.
Just four months ago the UAE convicted 69 people on charges of plotting an Islamist-inspired coup. Human Rights Watch said the bulk of the evidence focused on peaceful political activity. The New York-based group said the only evidence that suggested intent to overthrow the government is a confession by one defendant, who was forcibly disappeared for five months after his arrest.
"This judgment sends a message to Emirati citizens that engaging in free-thinking political debate and criticizing their government are treasonous acts," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The cases reflect widespread angst among Gulf monarchs that Islamist opposition groups are plotting against their rule. The London-based Emirates Centre for Human Rights said in a statement that Egyptian defendants in Tuesday's case have claimed in handwritten letters smuggled out of prison that they have been tortured and denied proper access to legal representation. They say they have been beaten with sticks, subjected to electric shocks, and were exposed to severe temperatures and long periods of solitary confinement.
Independent civil society organizations and foreign media are generally not granted access to such trials. The Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate issued a statement saying two of its members attended the opening trial and met defendant Ahmed Labib Gaafar, an Egyptian journalist who worked in the UAE prior to his arrest.
The UAE's state media reported the next hearing was scheduled for Nov. 12 to allow probes of the suspects' claims of abuses in prison. The UAE has been among the biggest supporters of Egypt's new military-backed government, which took over after the July 3 coup that followed mass protests calling for President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood, to step down.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have pledged $14 billion in aid to Cairo's interim leaders who have launched a fierce security crackdown on Brotherhood supporters across Egypt. On Monday, Morsi stood trial in Cairo with 14 co-defendants, all prominent members of the Islamist group, on charges of inciting the killing of protesters.