International American Council

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Middle East and North Africa

United Arab Emirates vacillates on sexual assault policy

On Monday, a local court in Abu Dhabi sentenced an Indian immigrant to the United Arab Emirates to death for raping a 7-year-old girl at the school where she attended and he was employed. Prosecuting attorney Hussein al-Jaziri says this ruling will “give hope to the victim and her family that justice has been achieved.”

This harsh verdict may come as a surprise to those familiar with the U.A.E.’s sometimes-weak policy on sexual assault. Just last month, a Norwegian expatriate in Dubai named Marte Deborah Dalelv was given a 16-month prison sentence after she reported a rape to the police, for unlawful sex, making a false statement, and illegal alcohol consumption. Her case made international headlines, especially because she was told by her Emirati manager that if she retracted her statement and said the sex was consensual, her charges would disappear. Upon the international uproar, Dubai sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum pardoned Dalelv and released her back to Norway.

The more recent Abu Dhabi verdict may give heart to some who have come to believe that the U.A.E. will not properly prosecute rape, although many in the international community may find a death sentence for rape to be rather draconian. It appears that the country’s standards on sexual assault are merely inconsistent, which of course is better than purely victim-blaming. However, it does raise the question as to why these standards are inconsistently applied.

One factor could be that the rapist in the Abu Dhabi case was an Indian migrant, and the rapist in the Dalelv case was a native Emirati. The relationship between Emiratis and the U.A.E.’s migrant work force is a tense one, considering native Emiratis make up only about 13 percent of the population, but have significantly more rights than the migrants who make up the majority of the U.A.E.’s cheap labor. In times of economic contraction, migrant workers are often sent to their home countries on extended “vacations” and never allowed to return. As much as ten years ago, Human Rights Watch called the U.A.E. out for this disparity of treatment. It is possible that another form of this discrimination is discrimination under the law.

However, a more salient factor could be how greatly defamation is viewed as a serious crime in the U.A.E., far more serious than in most other countries. After a video of an Emirati attacking an Indian migrant driver was posted on the internet last month, the Emirati was arrested for assault, but the Indian victim was arrested as well—for defamation and invasion of privacy. Defamation of an Emirati citizen is a very grave offense, in many cases worth jail time. This may help logically connect the two cases. In the Abu Dhabi case, the family of the young Emirati girl invoked the stigma she would suffer for the rest of her life, leading to a harsh sentence. In the Dalelv case, the rape victim publicly accused an Emirati citizen of rape, which landed her a prison sentence, despite her victim status.

By Laura Gates 

Source: The Times of India, CNN, Al-Monitor, Human Rights Watch, Al Jazeera

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