Five Emirati Internet activists, jailed for up to three years on charges including insulting the Gulf state’s leaders, have been pardoned, state news agency WAM and their lawyer said on Monday.
The United Arab Emirates president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahayan, “ordered the release of the five detainees,” a day after their conviction, WAM quoted an official in the presidency as saying.
The five were included in a presidential amnesty for the 40th anniversary of UAE National Day to be celebrated on December 2, it said.
Their lawyer Mohammed al-Roken told AFP earlier that “an official has informed me that a presidential pardon has been issued to release them,” after they were sentenced by the Federal Supreme Court on Sunday.
“The order has been delivered to Al-Wathba prison and it is being processed to release them,” he said, adding that he hoped they would be freed by the end of Monday.
The UAE’s top court handed blogger Ahmed Mansoor a three-year prison sentence, while four others arrested with him in April received two years each.
Mansoor was convicted along with Nasser bin Gaith, who lectures at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Sorbonne University, and activists Fahid Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq.
The five were accused of using the Internet to insult UAE leaders, of calling for a boycott of September’s Federal National Council elections and in connection with anti-government demonstrations.
Their trial was criticised as “grossly unfair” by a coalition of seven rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which called for the five to be freed.
The five defendants, described by sympathisers as reformists, refused to show up in court on Sunday, saying through a police officer that the court did not allow them to defend themselves.
The defendants were said on Sunday to be still on a hunger strike which they started earlier this month.
A relative of bin Ghaith welcomed the decision to release the five and hoped they would walk free within hours. “Hopefully they will be out today,” Khalifa al-Nuaimi told AFP.
Human Rights Watch UAE researcher Samer Muscati said the pardon was a “positive step” although it was not immediately clear if the sentences were being commuted or wiped clean.
The trial had had a “chilling effect on free speech” in the federation of hereditary sheikhdoms, he said. “People are less likely to speak out … That can’t be undone.”
Muscati also warned that the safety of the five was at risk.
“Their security is still an issue because of a smear campaign on blogs and Facebook. No one has been investigated over the threats,” he said, pointing out that 15 cases were reported to police.
Dozens of UAE nationals were gathered outside the federal court for Sunday’s verdict, hailing the jail sentences and pledging the allegiance of their tribes to the leaders of the desert state.
The oil-rich southern Gulf nation, which in September held limited polls to elect half the members of its toothless FNC, does not face strong calls for political change.
It provides cradle-to-grave care to its nationals who represent just over 10 percent of the expat-dominated society.