Four human rights watchdogs jointly called on the United Arab Emirates on Sunday to drop all charges against five activists on trial for "insulting" top officials after they urged democratic reforms.
The five, who include a blogger and a lecturer, are due back in court on Monday on charges that also include instigation, perpetrating acts that pose a threat to state security, undermining public order and opposing the government system.
Amnesty International, the Arabic Network For Human Rights Information, Front Line Defenders and Human Rights Watch called on the UAE authorities to abandon the trial and release the men immediately.
"The UAE government is using defamation as a pretext to prosecute activists for peacefully expressing their beliefs about the way their country should be run," said Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Philip Luther.
Blogger Ahmed Mansoor, Nasser bin Gaith, an economics lecturer at the Sorbonne University in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, and activists Fahid Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq were detained in April and went on trial before the State Security Court on June 14.
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The rights groups said that the government had presented no legitimate evidence to back accusations that Mansoor and Bin Ghaith had used the online political forum UAE Hewar to "conspire against the safety and security of the state in association with foreign powers".
They said that additional charges levelled against Mansoor of inciting others to break the law and calling for demonstrations and an election boycott flew in the face of the spirit of reform that has swept the region since the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
"In this day and age, with all that is going on in the region, it is disturbing and absurd that the UAE is prosecuting activists simply because they spoke out for democracy," said Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.
The rights groups also criticised what they described as an "intimidating" online and satellite television campaign against the five defendants accusing them of being religious extremists and foreign agents, who want to cause harm to the UAE.
Some 200 Emiratis gathered outside the courtroom when the trial opened, criticising the defendants and expressing their allegiance to the UAE leadership, witnesses told AFP.
The demonstrators carried pictures of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, Vice President and prime minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the three top officials the defendants are accused of insulting.
The UAE, a coalition of seven Gulf emirates led by oil-rich Abu Dhabi, has not seen any popular demonstrations calling for reform like those that have swept other Arab countries, including Gulf states Bahrain and Oman.