Published on The Economist, Jan 14th 2010. – Two awkward cases suggest that the law in the emirates is unequally applied:
IT HAS been an inauspicious start to the year for justice in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A court in Abu Dhabi, the richest of the federation’s seven states, acquitted a senior prince of criminally abusing an Afghan grain dealer, despite television footage that showed the accused beating the man with a stick, pouring salt in his wounds and driving over him in a car. At the other end of the justice system, a young British tourist in Dubai, the UAE’s other main state, faces up to six years in jail after reporting to the police that she had been raped.
Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi prince, was acquitted on the ground of diminished responsibility. The court accepted his defence that he had been drugged by erstwhile business partners, a couple of Lebanese-American brothers, so apparently he could not be held accountable for his actions. Those partners, who leaked a video of the attack to an American television network, were given jail sentences in absentia. Sheikh Issa is a half-brother of the UAE’s president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
While Sheikh Issa went free, the 23-year-old British woman was barred from leaving the country while awaiting trial. On New Year’s Day she told police she had been raped the previous evening by a waiter at a five-star hotel. Remarkably, the charges against her are not connected to that claim. Rather, the police arrested her after she revealed during questioning that she had drunk alcohol and had sex with her fiancé, with whom she was on holiday.
The cases highlight the cultural ambiguity that permeates life in the UAE. The country wants to cosy up to Western governments, companies and tourists, while clinging to its traditional laws and customs. Many hotels are owned by the government and make fortunes selling hotel rooms and booze to foreign tourists, often unmarried couples. Under sharia law, sex out of wedlock and the drinking of alcohol are illegal for Muslims. So hotel managers, eager to turn a good profit, happily turn a blind eye. Yet the police evidently do not. The British woman in question is of Pakistani descent. She and her 44-year-old fiancé both face charges.
She is by no means the first to be jailed for unrelated offences when reporting rape. And earlier this month a survey by YouGov Siraj, a research company, revealed that half of women in the UAE would be loth to report a sexual assault for fear of prosecution or because it might embarrass their families … (full text).