Pardoned: 24 year old Norwegian tourist Marte Deborah Dalelv who was pardoned of a 16 month jail sentence for having sex outside of marriage, illegal alcohol consumption and falsely reporting rape Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: When Norwegian Marte Deborah Dalelv was convicted this month of adultery, illegal alcohol consumption and falsely reporting rape in Dubai, vitriolic attacks were unleashed from all sides attacking the UAE’s legal system.

Such Western media reports on Marte’s case are typical of Dubai-bashing and form part of a colourful narrative of numerous expats who had fallen on the wrong side of the UAE’s laws.

In May, Dubai’s highest court confirmed the conviction of British recruitment executive Rebecca Blake and Irishman Conor McRedmond for having sex in a Dubai taxi’s backseat.

In April 2012, a Briton and another man from Seychelles were convicted of having sex under a tree following a booze-driven party. A sensational white-collar sex crime involved Britons Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer who were jailed in 2008 for their Dubai beach romp that came after a marathon drinking brunch session. The list of cases involving sex-outside-marriage among expatriates in the UAE goes on. The alarming pile up had even prompted the British Embassy in Dubai to issue a list of ‘Dos and Don’ts’ for tourists and expats working in the UAE.

But, the point to note here is that each time a high-profile case emerges, Western media is quick to attack Sharia and Dubai’s alleged ‘archaic’ laws. The Guardian reported on July 22: “The sentence against Dalelv has caused widespread outrage in the West and highlighted the frequent clash between Dubai’s western-friendly image and its Islamic legal code, or Sharia law.”

On July 21, Toronto Star reported: “The news of her case ... is raising questions about the judicial system in the Gulf state, which lures large numbers of expatriates and tourists with the promise of a Western lifestyle but still has strict, but little-known, laws on sex and alcohol.”

Emirati lawyer Mohammad Al Suwaidi said such attacks are unfair and ill informed. “The UAE law is simple: Sex outside marriage is adultery and is punishable. If it were Sharia law, the guilty party would have been given 100 lashes, or death if the guilty party is married,” he said.

The UAE Penal Code, under which many crimes against honour are tried, prescribes a minimum of one year in jail for sex outside marriage. The death penalty is prescribed for rape where a victim is under 14 and dies (Penal Code, Article 357).

Cultural insensitivity?

So what is the reason behind a spike in sex crimes involving expats? Some legal experts say the rise could be blamed on ignorance. Dubai is home to an extreme diversity of cultures from a cocktail of about 200 nationalities.

“But ignorance of the law is not a defence,” said Badr Abdullah, an Emirati lawyer. “The UAE is an open country. Some people think these acts (indecency) are permissible here as they are decriminalised in their countries. Our judges base their decisions on evidence, including forensic lab reports and witness testimonies, not on media wrath (arising from such decisions).”

Another lawyer however disagreed. “It’s [what happens] when people are treated better and find more freedom,” said Mansour Abdullah Al Zarouni of Al Insaf Advocates. “Human nature is such that when you give him freedom, he asks for more.”

He said many visitors come to the UAE with the wrong notion of tourism. For some, he said, tourism means just sex and alcohol. Al Zarouni said while UAE law respects freedom and privacy of individuals, it does not condone sex outside marriage.

Al Zarouni’s argument would make sense to many. Take the example of the 24-year-old Norwegian. The case reached the law-enforcement authorities after Dalelv approached police complaining she was raped by her 33-year-old Sudanese colleague after she spent a night inside his hotel room. It emerged later that Dalelv had been drinking with her male colleague and retired to his room. Later, according to Dalelv’s statement to police, she slept in his bed in her undergarments while the man slept on the couch. What happened next is disputed by Dalelv and the man and is recorded in police and prosecution files.

So in this case, the lawyer pointed out, it wasn’t Dubai Police who busted the duo in their hotel room. Dalelv was sentenced to 16 months jail while the Sudanese man was given 13 months prison. However she was pardoned on July 22.

So could it be down to a clash of cultures? “No,” said Al Suwaidi, a Western-educated Emirati lawyer. “It’s about respect for the law of the land you’re in, the same way European law penalises those who deny the Holocaust or Singaporean law punishes people caught chewing gum (without a prescription).”

“Ms Dalelv had unfairly misused the western media’s ignorance to fuel attacks on the UAE’s legal system, even after she was pardoned.”

Many felt that the pardon was undeserved, he said.

Rape a serious crime

Rape is a serious crime and under the UAE’s Penal Code, a rapist could face death.

Aided by better forensics, law enforcement had been swift and decisive as was seen in the case of a man convicted for raping a four-year-old boy in a mosque’s toilet in 2009. He faced the firing squad a year later.

Despite severe penalties, circumstantial evidence points to a rise in the number of sex crimes.

Dubai Police reported a 29 per cent spike in sex-related crimes in 2010, the latest year-long tally available, when 504 such cases were recorded compared to 391 cases in 2009.

While the jury is still out on whether sex crimes are under-reported – a trend has emerged: the well-heeled tend to dominate consensual sex crimes, while violent sex cases tend to be perpetrated by less educated, blue-collar workers.

Experts, however, warn that class alone can’t be the sole predictor for such crimes.

Dr Annie Crookes, Head of the Psychology Department at Heriot Watt University in Dubai, said the risk factors for both victim and perpetrator must be analysed closely to understand the problem.

“This is not a single problem with a single cause, but a tragic outcome of a range of different situations and factors,” she said.

Dr Amber Haque, a psychologist at the UAE University in Al Ain, said education is key. “There are no quick fixes. Sex is a very private, intimate affair between married couples. That’s not something to be trivialised or messed with. That should be the consistent message across the board,” said Dr Haque, who proposed the creation of a national task force to analyse the issue and recommend solutions.

But rape reported under questionable circumstances must be met with cynicism, said Al Zarouni.

Not a bad thing

The rise in sex-related crime reports, however, is not necessarily a bad thing, said Dubai’s leading psychologist, Dr Raymond Hamden of Human Relations Institute. “It does not mean a rise in sex-related violence per se, but increase in awareness and reporting. In a way, this rise in reporting is a positive sign -– though not a positive situation.”

The challenge, experts said, is how this openness will lead to greater understanding of laws, as well as the causes and prevention or treatment for victims.

Dr Hamden said: “The fact is all human being have physical needs. It’s unnatural for an adult to be without a partner for a long period of time. But the length of time depends on the libidinal energy of the individual.

“A person who does not have a partner for a regular sharing, caring, and loving relationship for a long stretch of time can be the root of personal vulnerability and cause socio-legal problems.”

Authorities have tried to counter this threat. In July 2010, a plan to establish a sex offenders registry in the UAE was unveiled to beef up child protection measures.

Each case is unique

Judge Maher Salama Al Owafi said the rise in sex-related crimes reaching the courts is a positive thing. “The victims, after suffering from pain and humiliation, report the incident the following day. That’s a good thing. It seems people are becoming more aware.”

The judge said, however, that no two crimes are the same. “Every incident has its own circumstances. Each crime has its own measure of nuances. The offender may try to prove that he’d known the victim somehow [to make it look it was an act of consensual sex].”

Technology, said the judge, has helped make considerable breakthroughs in crime forensics. “As a result, it makes it easier for the police to find evidence.” Despite the spike in the number of reported cases, many go unreported, according to a report quoting Emirati lawyer Maryam Al Hamly, who specialises on women’s issues in the Dubai Media Affairs office. The reason, she said, is that sex is considered a taboo issue — and there is a “fear of shame, regardless of gender and nationality.”

Judge Al Owafi disagreed, saying the number of sex crimes that go unreported are “limited at best”.

Amer Syed Al Marzouqi, another Dubai-based trial lawyer, pointed out that weak sentences can send a wrong message.

“Sexual abuse must be considered a ‘Haraba’ offence (a term in Sharia law referring to circumstances that can lead to the death penalty). “Sexual offenders pose a social threat.”

As for hate attacks in the West against UAE’s decency laws, Al Zarouni said: “We have a saying in Arabic: ‘No one will throw stones at a tree that bears no fruit’. People need to say something to tell others they are there, that they exist — even if what they say makes no sense.”

— With inputs from Habiba Abd El Aziz, Staff Reporter

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