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Dozens of people are sentenced to life in prison in the UAE in a mass trial criticized abroad

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — (AP) — A mass trial of dissidents in the United Arab Emirates sentenced 43 people to life in prison on Wednesday while several other defendants received long prison terms in a case that has been widely criticized by activists abroad.

The sentences given by the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal came in a case described by the UAE government as involving the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamic organization declared a terrorist group by the Emirates. Activists, however, decried the case as targeting dissidents, something that drew attention and protests at the United Nations COP28 climate talks held in Dubai in November.

The state-run WAM news agency reported the verdicts after human rights activists said the sentences had been handed down. Five defendants received 15-year sentences while five others received 10-year sentences. Another 24 defendants had their cases dismissed, WAM reported.

The court ruled that those convicted “have worked to create and replicate violent events in the country, similar to what has occurred in other Arab states — including protests and clashes between the security forces and protesting crowds — that led to deaths and injuries and to the destruction of facilities, as well as the consequent spread of panic and terror among people,” WAM said.

The agency reported on no specific evidence the court cited tying those convicted to violence or the Brotherhood.

The verdict, which can be appealed to the UAE's Federal Supreme Court, drew immediate criticism abroad.

“These over-the-top long sentences make a mockery of justice and are another nail in the coffin for the UAE’s nascent civil society,” said Joey Shea, a researcher focusing on the UAE for Human Rights Watch. “The UAE has dragged scores of its most dedicated human rights defenders and civil society members through a shamelessly unfair trial riddled with due process violations and torture allegations.”

The Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center, an advocacy group in exile, separately reported that sentences had been handed down.

“Regrettably, these sentences were entirely foreseeable," center director Mohamed al-Zaabi said. “From the outset, it was clear that this trial was merely a facade designed to perpetuate the detention of prisoners of conscience even after their sentences had been served.”

Amnesty International also criticized the sentences, saying the defendants had “been held in prolonged solitary confinement, deprived of contact with their families and lawyers and subjected to sleep deprivation through continuous exposure to loud music.” Those tried also were “forbidden from receiving the most basic court documents,” it said.

“The trial has been a shameless parody of justice and violated multiple fundamental principles of law, including the principle that you cannot try the same person twice for the same crime, and the principle that you cannot punish people retroactively under laws that didn’t exist at the time of the alleged offense,” said Devin Kenney, an Amnesty International researcher.

Kenney described some of those tried as “prisoners of conscience and well-known human rights defenders.”

WAM did not identify those sentenced. But among those who received life sentences is activist Nasser bin Ghaith, an academic held since August 2015 over his social media posts, Shea said.

He was among dozens of people sentenced in the wake of a wide-ranging crackdown in the UAE following the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Those demonstrations saw Islamists, including Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, rise to power in several Mideast nations.

The Gulf Arab states did not experience any popular overthrow of their governments and cracked down against demonstrators and those perceived to be dissenters.

Also among those who were likely sentenced Wednesday is Ahmed Mansoor, the recipient of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015. Mansoor repeatedly drew the ire of authorities in the UAE by calling for a free press and democratic freedoms in the federation of seven sheikhdoms.

Mansoor was targeted with Israeli spyware on his iPhone in 2016 likely deployed by the Emirati government ahead of his 2017 arrest and sentencing to 10 years in prison over his activism.

During COP28, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch held a demonstration in which they displayed Mansoor's face in the U.N.-administered Blue Zone at the summit in a protest carefully watched by Emirati officials.

The UAE, while socially liberal in many regards compared with its Middle Eastern neighbors, has strict laws governing expression and bans political parties and labor unions. That was seen at COP28, where there were none of the typical protests outside of the venue as activists worried about the country's vast network of surveillance cameras.

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