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Dozens convicted, jailed over coup plot in United Arab Emirates

Kamran Jebreili / AP, file

A justice symbol monument in front of a mosque in Ras al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, in this May file photo.

ABU DHABI - A United Arab Emirates court on Tuesday jailed scores of Emiratis convicted of plotting a coup, after a trial that reflected the Gulf state's mistrust of Islamist groups following the Arab uprisings.

Among the 68 men convicted were academics and members of some prominent families in the UAE, including a cousin of the ruler of one of the seven emirates in the oil-rich federation.

Judge Falah al-Hajiri read out the names of 26 acquitted defendants, then announced jail terms for the remaining 68, eight of whom he sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison.

According to a videotape of Hajiri reading his judgment in court, broadcast on Abu Dhabi television, 56 defendants were sentenced to 10 years in jail. The fate of four other defendants among the 94 accused was not immediately clear.

Dozens of people have been detained in a crackdown on Islamists in the past year amid heightened worries among officials about a spillover of unrest in other Arab countries.

The trial, which human rights groups say included "flagrant flaws" in procedure, was widely seen as an effort to tackle what the UAE says is a threat from the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

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 and kept reporters away.

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.

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 organization ... 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".

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 UAE official, who declined to be named, said the case was important because it involved a threat to national security.

"We have full confidence in the UAE judiciary to issue sentences they see fit," he said. "The UAE considers the trial to have taken place in a fair and legal manner."

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 the successes of counterparts in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, have stepped up their activities, angering the authorities in a country where no political opposition is permitted.

Rights groups had urged authorities to grant full public access to the trial. They did not do so, but a source close to the government said it had occurred in a "very transparent manner".

The defendants said they had been insulted, threatened and in some cases subjected to physical abuse after arrest. UAE authorities have dismissed the accusations.

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.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Related: Full coverage of United Arab Emirates on NBCNews.com