There is a very important difference between making political speeches and even trying to rally support for a point of view, while staying within the law and working within the bounds of the constitution; and seeking to change the government by seditious and violent methods. The trial which concluded this week of the 94 Emiratis accused of seeking to undermine the UAE’s government and seize power was about their plans for violent action.
The accused faced charges that they had sought to topple the government by violence. There have been reports from the courtroom, showing the distance these people were prepared to go — including undergoing semi-military training and talking of taking action even if the blood runs up to their knees. More evidence along the same lines should emerge soon as the state prosecution makes public more of the actions of those found guilty.
The trial was not about the freedom of speech in the UAE, which remains as strong as it has ever been. There is a stark difference between the violent and illegal activities which have been the subject of this court case and speaking in a non-violent manner to seek change or reform.
For example, two years ago, there was a well-publicised petition signed by many intellectuals, but no one was taken to court or suffered for signing that petition.
It made some controversial points and was widely talked about and was reported at the time. It was a dramatic moment in the light of regional developments, but no one was accused of any crime over the petition.
The way in which the petition was handled by the authorities is an important illustration of how free speech has been respected in the UAE and has nothing to do with the trial of the 94, in which 69 were found guilty of serious crimes, including seeking to topple the government, as well as maintaining close links with a variety of foreign institutions dedicated to espousing violent change in the UAE.