A pro-democracy blogger who was jailed for insulting UAE leaders, then pardoned and released hours later, Thursday vowed to go on with his campaign work, sounding a rare note of defiance in the Gulf Arab oil state.

Nasser bin Ghaith was one of five arrested in April on charges of disrupting public order and calling for protests.

They were sentenced to up to three years in prison Sunday and pardoned one day later along with more than 550 others given amnesty ahead of the UAE's national holiday.

The UAE, the world's third biggest oil exporter, has not seen the kind of protests that have rocked Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, partly thanks to its generous cradle-to-grave welfare system.

But the case of bin Ghaith and his colleagues has been seen as a gauge of how the state, which allows no political parties, responds to political dissent.

Bin Ghaith told Reuters in an interview he was still amazed at how they were treated for criticizing the government's moves to raise social spending in a bid to prevent the eruption of popular unrest.

We haven't done anything against any law or rule and not even anything that constitutes a moral or legal breach, said the lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of France's Sorbonne University.

I never thought I would go through this experience and see the dark side of the country ... To stop what I do in the field of human rights, in defending personal freedoms and pushing for political reforms, I think that will be a step back in my love for my country.

The activists' unusually bold criticism of the Western-allied state's political system on UAE websites was a rare example of public protest.

Fellow blogger Ahmed Mansoor was back with his family on Thursday, celebrating the public holiday marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates.

We were hoping that instead of a pardon we would get a fair trail ... It would have been a victory not just for us but for the country as a whole, he said.

He was surrounded by his sons who wore pins depicting the image of the UAE's President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan.

(Reporting By Warda al-Jawahiry; Writing By Nour Merza; Editing by Andrew Heavens)