UPDATE 4-UAE jails 61 Islamists in coup plot trial, rights groups protest
* Trial shows UAE leaders' distrust of Brotherhood
* Defendants allege torture, authorities deny this
* HRW calls UAE "a serious abuser of human rights" (Adds relatives, government statement)
By Yara Bayoumy
ABU DHABI July 2 (Reuters) - Sixty-one convicted coup plotters received jail terms of up to 10 years in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday after a trial that targeted Islamists and drew criticism from human rights groups.
Among those sentenced were academics, lawyers and members of prominent UAE families, including a cousin of the ruler of one of the seven emirates in the oil-rich federation, a longtime foe of Islamist groups seeking a role in politics and state affairs.
Eight men were sentenced in absentia by the Federal Supreme Court to 15 years in prison, in a judgement rights groups said showed growing intolerance in the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab country.
The government said the sentences could not be appealed.
"These verdicts cement the UAE's reputation as a serious abuser of basic human rights," said Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Today's judgements mark yet another low point for the UAE's worsening human rights record."
Alkarama, a Swiss-based Arab human rights group, called the verdicts politically driven and said they should be overturned.
State news agency WAM said that apart from those sentenced in absentia, 56 were jailed for 10 years and five for seven years, while 25 were acquitted, including all 13 women accused.
Dozens of suspected Islamists have been detained in the past year amid government worries about a spillover of Arab unrest.
The trial was widely seen as an attempt to tackle what the UAE sees as a threat from the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
ALLEGATIONS OF ABUSE
Many of the 94 defendants belong to al-Islah, a group which the UAE says has links to Egypt's Brotherhood. Al-Islah denies this, but says it shares some of the Brotherhood's ideology.
The defendants, known as UAE94, were accused of "belonging to an illegal, secret organisation ... that aims to counter the foundations of this state in order to seize power and of contacting foreign entities and groups to implement this plan".
The defendants had denied the charges, and some said they had been abused in detention, an accusation the state denied.
International media have been barred from attending the court hearings, which began in March. On Tuesday witnesses said police blocked roads outside the court.
Family members gathered at a parking lot nearby said they had expected tough verdicts but were disappointed that the court had not examined allegations of torture and procedural flaws.
A British lawyer, Melanie Gingell, mandated by several human rights groups to attend the hearing, was informed at the last minute that she could not do so, the groups said in a statement.
RIPPLES FROM ARAB UNREST
Attorney General Salem Saeed Kubaish said in January the defendants had sought to infiltrate state institutions, including schools, universities and ministries.
He said the accused, all UAE nationals, had invested money from Brotherhood membership fees and charity funds to set up commercial enterprises and real estate investments held in their own names to conceal their activities from the state.
A government statement after the verdict said the court had been transparent, fair and independent, with more than 500 observers at each hearing, including relatives of the defendants, local media and a state-linked rights group.
Rights groups had urged authorities to grant full public access to the trial. They did not do so.
One of the region's most politically stable nations, largely thanks to its oil wealth and cradle-to-grave welfare system, the UAE has seen none of the violent turmoil that has shaken other parts of the Middle East and North Africa in the past two years.
But some UAE Islamists, inspired by their brethren's gains in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, have become more active, angering the authorities in a state that brooks no opposition.
Separately, the UAE said last month it would try 30 Emiratis and Egyptians accused of setting up an illegal branch of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, further straining UAE-Egyptian relations. (Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habboush, Sami Aboudi and Amena Bakr; Editing by William Maclean and Alistair Lyon)