UAE ‘torture’ case seen as critical test of justice
Posted by 7starsdubai on May 16, 2009
The footage begins with an assault rifle allegedly being fired by a member of the United Arab Emirates’ ruling family. Bullets throw up clouds of sand as they smash into the desert, inches from a cowering Afghan grain trader.
It moves on to the Afghan being beaten with a cattle prod and a plank of wood, and concludes with a 4×4 vehicle being driven over his battered body.
The video lasts just minutes and was recorded more than three years ago. But, for the UAE, an oil-rich nation desperate to hold itself up as a model international business hub, it has thrown up a critical test.
The man alleged to have carried out the assault in the so-called “torture video” is Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a half-brother of the UAE’s president and of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, the capital and wealthiest of the seven city states that make up the emirates.
In the past, scandals involving the Gulf’s large ruling families were dealt with in-house and its members were seen to be above the law and almost any form of public scrutiny.
But this time it is different. The video has been leaked, broadcast by American television, posted on the internet and widely distributed to politicians in the US, a key ally with which the UAE is hoping to negotiate a deal on civilian nuclear trade.
In the wake of the international outcry, Abu Dhabi authorities announced that they had detained Sheikh Issa and launched a criminal investigation into the allegations, the first move of its kind in the UAE.
With the world’s eyes increasingly on the oil nations of the Gulf, image-conscious Abu Dhabi appears to have accepted that it had no choice but to act amid the scrutiny.
“The UAE is clear on its desire to be global and be measured by best of international standards,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist at Emirates University. “And if it wants to measure itself with the best of international standards, it has to apply it across the board.”
In recent years the UAE has grown more engaged with the outside world and has moved to quell international censure. It has reimbursed child camel jockeys, improved labour rights and worked out principles for sovereign wealth funds to follow.
Dubai expatriates have long passed on stories of foreigners who ended up in jail – the “Hilton Jumeirah”, as some dubbed the city’s old prison – for crossing the wrong sheikh or wellconnected national, usually over a failed business deal.
Lawyers say some individuals can still pervert the course of justice by wielding influence before a trial. But once cases go to court, it is generally more difficult to influence the judiciary.
The decision to prosecute a former finance minister, Mohammed bin Kharbash, for alleged fraud at a state-linked real estate company, seems to back the proclamation last year by Dubai ruler’s that no one is above the law.
Most locals argued that Mr bin Kharbash was too powerful to face trial and the move sent shockwaves through the community. Another former minister had a month earlier been found guilty of embezzling assets from a business partner.
However, there are some foreign complainants in commercial cases who continue to argue that they are not getting a fair hearing.
With the case of Sheikh Issa – one of 19 sons of UAE founding father Sheikh Zayed – many will want to see if the judicial process produces tangible results.
Human Rights Watch argues that, while his detention is significant, “much more needs to be done to restore faith in the country’s police and justice system”.
But Mr Abdulla said it shows that no one – whether it’s “a regular man or superman or a ruling family man” – is above the law.
“We should not be in the habit of hiding our mistakes,” he adds. “The sooner we deal with them in a transparent way, the more we will measure up [as] a transparent and a civilised nation.”
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