Five hunger-striking political activists were convicted on Sunday of insulting the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and sentenced to between two and three years in jail.

The five-month-long trial of the activists has been seen as a gauge of how the Gulf state, the world's No. 3 oil exporter, with no tradition of organised political protest, responds to hints of political dissidence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Ahmed Mansoor, a communications engineer and poet, was the main defendant, accused of running a website that gave the other defendants a venue to express anti-government views. He was jailed for three years.

The website included insults that diminished the standing of His Highness the president and His Highness the vice president, the state prosecutor said in October when he presented his case, without specifying the insults.

The other four - Nasser bin Ghaith, Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq - were sentenced to two years in prison.

The court also ordered the closure of the website. The five, who were arrested in April for urging public protest and disrupting public order, had been on trial since June.

The five have been on hunger strike for almost two weeks, lawyers and relatives said.

Their health is deteriorating and they lost a lot of weight, Mohammed al-Roken, one of two lawyers defending the five activists, told reporters. But I don't know if they will continue or not.

The UAE has seen none of the public protests that have swept Arab countries over the last 10 months, thanks in part to cradle-to-grave benefits bestowed on its citizens.

One of the defendants had written an essay describing that approach as buying off citizens to avoid political reform.

Prosecutors also said in October one of the activists published a petition urging a boycott of elections in September for half of a 40-seat consultative council. Prosecutors said they had evidence the defendants incited citizens to breach public order and stage demonstrations against the state.

PRO-GOVERNMENT RALLY

Three rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), accused the UAE government last week of failing to investigate what they described as a campaign of death threats, slander and intimidation against the five.

We expected an unfair verdict considering that the trial itself is not fair. We're not surprised but disappointed, Samer Muscati, a researcher with HRW, told Reuters.

In a park near the court building, dozens of Emiratis gathered in support of the government. Some wore scarves embroidered with images of the rulers, including the President.

The country is made up of seven emirates, including regional commercial hub Dubai and oil-exporting Abu Dhabi, that have been ruled for decades by dynasties that hand power from father to son or brother to brother.

We renew our allegiance, loyalty and love to our leaders and denounce...Ahmed Mansour and his associates, Hamad al-Ahbabi, a tribal chief from the oasis city of Al Ain, told the crowd of mostly older men.

Khalifa al-Nuaimi, a cousin of Bin Ghaith's wife, and one of those who attended the trial, said he had hoped the five would be acquitted.

Presented evidence indicated they were innocent, he said.

(Writing by Mahmoud Habboush and Amran Abocar; Editing by Sophie Hares)