Inspired by the growing momentum of the pro-democracy Arab Spring, Emirati activists began to be more vocal in their opposition to the UAE government in early 2011. Bin Ghaith, an "outspoken economics professor", was arrested on 11 April for his call for "democratic and economic reforms". Mansoor, an engineer, blogger, and member of Human Rights Watch, was arrested the same day for signing a petition in favor of an elected parliament, and Dalk, al-Khamis, and Khaleq were detained for their online activities before the end of the month. Following their arrests, UAE government-controlled media reported that the five were "religious extremists" and Iranian foreign agents.
Their arrests received immediate international attention, with continuing coverrage in the BBC News, The New York Times, and various other media. Amnesty International designated the five prisoners of conscience and called for their immediate and unconditional release, recruiting comedians and writers to lobby for their cause at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival. The organization also coined the name "The UAE Five" to refer to the men, which was later adopted by some media sources. Human Rights Watch condemned the trial as "an attack on free expression", and Front Line Defenders, the Index on Censorship, and the Arabic Network For Human Rights Information also called for the men's release. Because of his academic background, bin Ghaith's trial was also protested by the Committee for Human Rights of the US National Academy of Sciences, Scholars at Risk, and the Committee of Concerned Scientists.
Their trial began on 14 June in Abu Dhabi. A Human Rights Watch spokesman criticized the "public relations campaign" of the UAE government against the defendants, stating that dozens of pro-government demonstrators were attending the trial to protest the five prisoners. The government charged the prisoners with violating article 176 of the UAE Penal Code, which criminalizes insults to the nation's leadership; the prosecutor's case focused on their posts to an online pro-democracy forum, which had by then been shut down and replaced with a travel service. On 18 July, the UAE Five pleaded not guilty. Amnesty International later condemned their trial as "fundamentally unfair" and "marred with irregularities", stating that the defendants had been "denied any meaningful opportunity to challenge the charges and the evidence against them". Human Rights Watch also described the trial as "grossly unfair".
On 3 October, the UAE Five refused to attend a session of their trial, demanding that the hearings be opened to the public and that they be allowed to question witnesses. On 13 November, with the trial still in progress, the five began a hunger strike to protest their continued detention; Human Rights Watch reported that the five were in poor health. On 27 November, the panel of four judges sentenced bin Ghaith, Dalk, al-Khamis, and Khaleq to two years' imprisonment, and Mansoor to three years. Following the announcement of the verdict, a pro-government protester reportedly assaulted a relative of one of the defendants despite the heavy security presence.
The following day, however, the five received a presidential pardon and were released. The office of President Khalifa declined to comment to reporters on the reason for the pardon. Bin Ghaith told reporters that he was glad to be free, but that he felt that the trial had been "a sad moment for our homeland, a beginning of a police state that has tarnished the image of the UAE forever".
As a member of the stateless Bedoun people, Khaleq had no UAE citizenship, but was granted a Comoros passport on 21 May 2012. The following day, he was arrested by authorities for his alleged ties to al-Islah, a nonviolent political organization that advocates government reform in the UAE. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, authorities told Khaleq that he must choose between permanent expulsion from the UAE to a limited number of countries and indefinite detention. Khaleq opted to leave for Thailand, departing for Bangkok on 16 July. The same day, the UAE revoked his right to reside in the country, preventing his return.
Human Rights Watch criticized the forced exile, calling the action an "unlawful expulsion" motivated by the government's desire to stifle dissent. Amnesty International issued a statement that "Ahmed Abdul Khaleq should never have been forced to leave the country and this event sets alarm bells ringing regarding the fate of others held in the UAE in connection with alleged plots against state security".