UAE closes Dubai office of US-funded National Democratic Institute

The United Arab Emirates has closed the Dubai office of the National Democratic Institute, a US-funded pro-democracy group that was the subject of a crackdown in Egypt, the US State Department said on Friday.

"We understand that the UAE government has closed the NDI office in Dubai," said State Department spokesman Noel Clay, offering no further details but defending the group's work.

"NDI is a respected organization that has been working across the region and beyond to promote civil society, development and democratic values. The State Department is a firm supporter of NDI's activities," he said.

The UAE, one of the world's top five oil exporters, has escaped the upheaval that has shaken the Arab world, but the case of five activists convicted late last year of insulting the country's rulers suggests it is not immune to calls for reform.

UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan in December pardoned the activists a day after they were sentenced to prison terms of two to three years.

That case had been seen as a gauge of how the Gulf Arab state, which allows no political parties, responds to hints of dissent after the uprisings that have toppled four Arab heads of state, including former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

A US official said the United States had been in contact with UAE authorities about the closure of the NDI office and argued in favor of allowing such groups to operate.

"We made clear that allowing NGOs to operate openly and freely is important to support political and economic development," said the official, who asked not to be named.

The UAE embassy did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

NDI and the International Republican Institute, US-funded groups loosely affiliated with the two main political parties in the United States, are among a number of foreign and domestic civil society groups that have been prosecuted in Egypt.

The authorities accused campaigners for the nongovernmental organizations, including the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, of working for groups receiving illegal foreign funding and had prevented them from leaving Egypt.

The US warned Egypt the case could imperil US$1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, but tensions abated earlier this month when Egyptian authorities lifted a travel ban on some of the foreigners targeted and most of them left the country.

The case against the 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers remains, however, and a judge has delayed the trial of the civil society activists on charges of receiving illegal foreign funds and pursuing their work without a license until 10 April.

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