Five pro-democracy activists in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), accused of insulting top officials, have boycotted the hearing of their trial alleging mistreatment.
The police officer in charge of bringing the five defendants to the hearing told the State Security Court on Sunday that they "refused to come," without any further explanation.
One of their lawyers, Mohammed al-Roken, told the court that the defendants refused to attend the hearing after their demands were not met.
The five men, four of whom are Emirati and one stateless, are demanding to "obtain all documents related to the trial, allow the defence to question all witnesses," as well as an "end to their ill-treatment," Roken told the court.
"They are denied their basic rights. Their rights were violated," said Roken, as the wife of one of the defendants, Nasser bin Gaith, broke down in tears.
"They are treated worse than criminals," he said.
The court, however, has accepted one of the defendants' demands by opening the hearings to the public.
In a letter posted online on Saturday, economics lecturer Gaith said he had decided to boycott the trial after having agreed with his co-accused that they would not receive "a fair trial".
'Insulting the president'
Sunday's hearing, held under tight security measures, was also open to representatives of human rights groups, who have called for the immediate release of the five, saying their trial was "fundamentally unfair".
All four previous sessions since the trial opened on June 14 were held behind closed doors.
Blogger Ahmed Mansoor, Gaith who lectures at the Abu Dhabi branch of Sorbonne University, and activists Fahid Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq were all detained in April.
"My husband isn't a traitor. My husband could never be a traitor to this country," Gaith's wife Wedad al-Muhairi said.
Muhairi said she was allowed to visit her husband every Sunday but Gaith refused to allow their 18-year-old son to see him "in this situation".
The prosecution has accused the five men of "insulting the president, the vice-president and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi".
It also alleged that they "have used the internet to call for a boycott of the Federal National Council elections" that took place last week to choose half the members of the toothless Federal National Council.
They are also charged with calling for "anti-government demonstrations".
Mansoor is accused of having created an Emirati forum, hosted by a US company named in the court as "Host Rocket," in which he allowed users to freely criticise UAE authorities.
The other four are accused of having joined the forum and of criticising the government.
The next hearing is to be held on October 9.
Samer Muscati, who attended the trial as an observer for Human Rights Watch, said court proceedings were held without the defendants, with the hearing of a state witness and a prosecution witness.
He said that the defendants boycotted the hearing because they saw the trial as a "sham".
"They think that to show up would have given the trial legitimacy," he said. "It's a desperate move. They believe that the decision is already taken and will not change, whether they show up or not".
After the hearing, Jennie Pasquarella, a civil liberties lawyer who is part of a delegation in the UAE on behalf of the rights groups to monitor the trial, described it as "more of a political theatre than a trial".
Amnesty International, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Front Line Defenders and Human Rights Watch said the trial had "violated the most basic defence rights of the accused".
Some of the activists signed a petition in March calling for political reforms. All five pleaded not guilty at the start of the trial.
The UAE, a federation of seven emirates led by oil-rich Abu Dhabi, has not seen any of the widespread protests calling for reform that have swept other Arab countries, including fellow Gulf states Bahrain and Oman.
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|William T. Hathaway|