UAE widens crackdown on dissent to legal group: HRW

DUBAI Fri Apr 22, 2011 6:16pm EDT

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch said on Friday that the United Arab Emirates has dissolved a civil society group after it arrested three prominent activists.

The rights group urged the UAE to reverse its decision, which it said was a crackdown on peaceful dissent.

The Jurist Association was one of three non-governmental organizations that joined hundreds of citizens in signing a petition this month calling for a greater voice in government and legislative powers for the quasi-parliament, the Federal National Council (FNC).

Three prominent activists who made similar calls for political reform have been arrested in the last few weeks.

UAE officials were not available for comment.

The Arab region is rocked by pro-democracy uprisings, two of which toppled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia.

"UAE authorities have staged a hostile takeover of one of the country's leading rights groups. The government is reacting to domestic criticisms by banning websites, detaining peaceful activists and intensifying its chokehold on civil society," said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director.

The U.S.-based rights group said the Jurist Association, which promoted the legal profession in the UAE, had already been facing growing government pressure. In 2010, its representatives were banned from attending meetings abroad and its symposiums were canceled.

The UAE, a federation of seven emirates headed by ruling families, does not allow direct elections or political parties.

Ranked as the world's third-largest oil exporter, the UAE and Qatar, the world's top liquefied natural gas exporter, are seen as the least vulnerable to political unrest because of generous government spending programs.

About two percent of Emirati nationals will be nominated by its rulers to vote or participate in an election to the FNC planned for later this year, though a UAE official has said the percentage could be raised.

A petition demanding broader representation sent to the UAE president garnered some 300 signatures online, many of them well-known academics and lawyers.

(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Diana Abdallah and Jon Boyle)

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