Five activists detained in response to a petition calling for constitutional reform in the UAE should be released and have their charges dropped, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on 15 June.

The five men, which include human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor and university lecturer Nasser bin Ghaith, signed a petition on March 9 demanding greater franchise and decision-making powers for the Federal National Council (FNC). The FNC performs a purely advisory role, and only half of its 40 members are elected from a caucus of around 7,000 local nationals.

The three other detained online activists are Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis, and Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq.

The men were arrested in April and have been denied bail. In early June, they were charged with “humiliating” top government officials under article 176 of the UAE Penal Code. On 14 June, they pleaded not guilty at a closed-door hearing in the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. The next hearing is scheduled for 18 July.

“UAE rulers are prosecuting these activists solely for advocating democratic reforms,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW. “The authorities should end this shameful crackdown on peaceful dissent.”

“The United Arab Emirates attorney general should immediately drop all charges against five pro-democracy activists to halt their trial,” HRW said in a statement.

The petition, signed by 133 citizens, provoked further government reaction. In the weeks following the arrests, the elected boards of the Jurists Association and the Teacher’s Association were dissolved and their members replaced by state appointees. Both associations, along with two other non-governmental organisations, had signed a public appeal calling for greater democracy in the country on 6 April.