Sunday, 30 May 2010

Judicial reform will make the country stronger

Authorities in the UAE proved their sophistication and diligence in uncovering the plot behind the murder of the Hamas leader Mahmoud Al Mabhouh earlier this year and in swiftly confronting many of those who have committed financial crimes. In the past several years, however, there have been other areas in which the judicial system has been found wanting.

For instance, a tourist was sentenced to four years in prison for a speck of cannabis on his shoe. A handful of former CEOs sit in prison without having been charged with a crime.

An Emirati man who was convicted for murder was released, only to commit another heinous act. And most recently, an 18-year-old girl reported that she was raped by several men, only to be charged with having sex outside of marriage by the authorities before she retracted her statement.

The delicacy of this particular matter cannot be underestimated. If the woman was found guilty of deceiving the authorities, her sentence could extend to up to two years. If she was found guilty of engaging in consensual sex, her sentence could extend to life in prison.

The incident presents a conundrum for women in the UAE. If a woman reports that she has been a victim of rape she also risks being charged with having sex out of wedlock. In a country where the ratio of men to women is the highest in the world, women must not feel reluctant to approach the police to report a crime for any reason.

This is sadly not the only example why broader reforms to the judicial system should be considered. The case of an Emirati man who kidnapped, raped and murdered a woman in 2004, leaving her body to rot in the mountains, is particularly concerning.

While the killer was sentenced to death, he was spared this punishment when the father of the victim forgave him if he promised to devote the rest of his life to God. Last month he was back in court, accused of having participated in the gang rape of another woman.

How could he have been set free in the first place? I respect the forgiveness of the victim’s father, which spared him the death sentence, but an unstable murderer should not have been let out of jail.

A killer walks the streets and yet a tourist spent time in jail for inadvertently having a trace of cannabis stuck to his shoe. This unsuspecting tourist didn’t serve his full sentence, but if he had, he would have found himself in the same detention centre as hardened criminals.

Newspaper reports last year indicated that certain detention centres in the UAE, which differ from jails, are overcrowded. One centre that held 230 inmates was built to hold only 40. Additionally, there was no separation between the suspects according to the nature of their crimes or the danger they presented to others. Those accused of financial fraud found themselves among drug dealers, addicts, and those accused of murder.

One reason for this overcrowding is the extended detention terms that usually occur in high profile cases of financial crimes, among other offences. The former CEO of Deyaar has been sitting in jail for over two years without charges, as has the former CEO of Tamweel.

Prosecutors in the UAE can detain suspects for 21 days without charge and 30 day extensions are permitted for an indefinite amount of time.

Detainees are only allowed access to a lawyer after the police have completed their investigation. If these cases were related to terror or national security, one would be able to justify the extension of holding these suspects until the cases are cleared, but for civil offenders in the UAE who post bail, the confiscation of their passports and national ID and banning them from leaving the country should suffice.

Finally, there are cases where misdemeanours such as kissing in public result in offenders serving time in jail. An alternative would be to issue fines along with a warning of the possibility of deportation.

There appears ample reason for reform of the country’s judicial system. As the laws are reviewed, the premise that a person is innocent until proven guilty ought to be considered. A more distinct separation between civil and criminal law and separation of criminal and civil offenders in prisons and detention centres should also be looked at. Furthermore, no woman or man should fear approaching the state for protection.

The trust that people invest in a country’s judicial system is tied to its reputation. We shouldn’t allow it to be tarnished.

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday, 30th May 2010

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