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17 Suspects, One Victim, and a Justice Dilemma

English | العربية

Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs

Tag: Dubai Middle East Security UAE
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For more than a month international media coverage focused a fresh spotlight on the UAEs system of justice.  This time, however, the majority of this interest has come not from the usual corner of the western libertarian establishment.  Instead, because of the nationalities of the victim and the accused and the issue of capital punishment, the press and public of India grew so vocal that they forced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take a stand.
The case at issue involves the death of a Pakistani national during gang-like violence in Sharjah in January last year.  The Sharjah police rounded up a large number of young Indian nationals, men who appear to have been involved in a turf fight over the illegal sale of alcohol.  Of these, 50 were indicted and a Sharjah court not only found the 17 ring-leaders guilty of murder but also sentenced them to death.
Aside from questions about how 17 people can each be culpable of the murder of a single individual, the Indian press has been sharply critical of the conduct of the trial.  The criticism targets the police, specifically the Sharjah police who were responsible for collecting the evidence, and who orchestrated and filmed a re-enactment of the killing, starring the accused, and then showed the film in court.  Moreover, widespread reports suggest that in their investigations the Sharjah Police used techniques, such as sleep deprivation and stress positioning, that are tantamount to torture; this added a human rights aspect to the case. 
All this is happening in a charged atmosphere of potential three-sided friction among expatriate Indian and expatriate Pakistani communities and a police force committed to preventing the selling of alcohol and to eradicating the gangs who ply this trade that led to dangerous crimes.  
The Indian government was swift to agree to funding legal aid for the 17 to appeal their convictions and sentencesan unprecedented consular intervention to support the suspects while at the same time its commitment to follow the legal system of UAE.  The Sharjah Court of Appeals postponed its hearing while petitioners sought someone to translate directly from Arabic to Punjabi.  Most observers expect this court, at minimum, to reduce the death sentences to terms of imprisonment for some of the suspects while sustaining death sentences for other suspects who were found guilty of murder in a direct and clear way. 
No matter what its final resolution, the case has questioned again whether the UAEs system of justice suits the modern world in which it must now operate.  Given a turf war case in neighbouring Dubai in which 13 persons potentially face death sentences, the UAE will remain in the sites of capital punishment critics worldwide. While this issue does not necessarily require a change in the justice system, other human rights questions in this case and related cases do suggest that the judicial system needs to rethink how it relates to the public.  It would benefit from developing a practice of explaining its proceedings and circumstances of cases in ways that promote  public trust in the systems fairness, its objectivity, and its aim to serve the people and protect their interests.     

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