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Cases of Muddled Justice?

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Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs

Tag: United Arab Emirates
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Over the past two weeks, the juxtaposition of two criminal investigations has called into question the balance and fairness of the UAEs system of justice.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the heavyweight media described the acquittal of a member of Abu Dhabis ruling family as a lack of judicial fairness.  The ruling seemed to fly in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence the world saw on TV and the court did not provide a strong enough justification to rule out this evidence. 
Next, when a young British Muslim woman visiting Dubai went to report a rape she found herself and her partner on the wrong end of the UAEs laws concerning drinking alcohol and having sexual relations outside marriage. Instead of conducting a professional investigation of her claim the police jailed her.  The London Times was typical in its view that: it would be hard to invent a case that exposed the UAEs justice system to greater ridicule.
Even The Economist newspaper, focused on the issues, suggested apparent inconsistency in the application of justice in the UAE. It observed that the coincidence of these cases demonstrates the tangle of a traditionally conservative Muslim culture seeking to embrace Western capitalism and then trying to balance some of the social challenges that arise.
A number of observers have made the point that the UAE is one of the most important countries in the Middle East and, particularly, is a living example of what a society can achieve through tolerance and moderation. They prize the country for its refusal to lean to the religious/theological extremes of the ruling elites of either Saudi Arabia and Iran, and they regard it highly as a model that other Middle East states, notably Iraq, should emulate. These commentators have now expressed fears that in reaching the judgments it has, the UAE judiciary has inflicted serious damage on the countrys reputation by demonstrating both nepotism and disregard of basic human rights. As the Financial Times Abu Dhabi-based author concluded, there is one set of rules for the elite and another for the rest.
Indeed, these cases have reawakened human rights activists.  It should come as little surprise that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed concerns. The Financial Times author seemed to sum up the overwhelming view that: Until there is a genuine sense that every citizen is treated equally, the credibility of the system social and legal will be a stain on the UAEs image.
Viewed from the broader, international perspective, this has most definitely not been a good fortnight for the reputation of the UAE; some in the country must worry that the stain will deter both potential tourists and business people from travelling to the country. While few admire the excesses of unbridled pursuit of wealth, celebrity and success in Western societies, some continue to see inconsistency between the UAEs encouragement of extreme wealth on one side and its sporadic outbursts of social conservatism on the other.
It is unfortunate that these two cases have come to public attention just at a time when the UAEs reputation has taken something of a battering from the economic downturn.   Equally, the level of media attention they have attracted may be symptomatic of the very problems the media highlight.
Given all the international critiques of these judicial actions, critiques which took on a tone of attack in some trouble-stirring newspapers, it was intriguing that UAE officials were extraordinarily silent. In the case of Sheikh Issa one might safely assume that his tactful lawyers argument was so persuasive that it overwhelmed the evidence the world had seen; perhaps he highlighted  procedural errors or legal oversights that forced the Judge to rule Sheikh Issa innocent as would be done in all countries that enjoy strict laws and procedures. Perhaps the prosecution was inadequate in its gathering and offering of evidence. 
However, if one or more of these assumptions is valid, one wonders at the lack of the courts interest in acknowledging it--showing why such a controversial case, one so sensitive to public opinion and largely decided ahead of the proceeding in the court of public opinion, resulted in an acquittal of the primary defendant.  The court said nothing to explain its reasoning or its actions.  Wasnt the court verdict worthy of an explaination?
The same logic could have been applied to the case of the British Muslims. Assumptions can be made that Sharia forensic procedures investigating the rape had been implemented and the surveillance cameras had for instance proved that the waiter in question wasnt close to the victim or even the medical checks proved that she only had a sexual relationship with her friend and nothing with anyone else?  Whatever the case may be, the question remains Why was it not announced, in full, in a timely fashion? especially the moment the international press entered the scene.  
UAE refusal to accept that the world is watching and listening invites international criticism rather than defusing it.  If the judicial system made errors, if police made errors, why could officials or spokespersons not say so and move on?  Errors occur in any judicial system and law enforcement.  Yet if the style of denial becomes the norm in UAE law enforcement and judicial practice, then the Financial Times correspondents rhetorical challenge risks becoming reality:  that there is a set of laws for the elite and another for the rest.

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