Where ‘no’ means jail time

 
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 Ray O’Reilly

Though Dubai may be the Middle East’s self-styled party capital,in the UAE, women who say they have been raped can find themselves behind bars for adultery.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

A Brisbane woman, Alicia Gali, is suing Australian embassy staff for failing to warn the 29-year-old that a complaint of rape in the United Arab Emirates could mean she ended up in jail for adultery of all things.

And that is exactly what happened. She was hauled off by police, held and eventually sentenced to 12 months in prison. She served eight months of that before being “pardoned” and released. Gali returned to Australia in March 2009 and, according to reports, has been trying to pick up the pieces of her life.

When informed of the incident in June 2008, the Australian embassy staff reportedly advised Gali to simply “reconsider her need to be in the country” and it was also suggested she not contact the media once it became apparent that making the complaint would land her in as much trouble as the rapists.

Gali has since criticised her employer, Le Meridien, for not being more clear that, without coroborating statements from four adult male witnesses to the crime, she could be charged with adultery and face prison if she filed a complaint.

“These countries don’t have the same laws as us,” Gali told News.com following her ordeal. She warned women against going to the UAE. “I was the victim. I’d had something wrong done to me and I was being punished,” she lamented.

The UAE was set up in 1971 as a federation of seven emirates – Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaima, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. It occupies the area previously known as the Trucial Coast. UAE has a federal judicial system as well, but Dubai and Ras Al Khaima chose to maintain their own.

The UAE follows a form of civil law jurisdiction which is heavily influenced by French, Roman, Egyptian and Islamic (or Sharia) law. Islamic courts work alongside civil and criminal courts primarily concerning civil matters between Muslims. Sharia courts hear family matters, such as divorce, child custody, child abuse cases and inheritance disputes, and the principles of Sharia are applied when the UAE’s codified law doesn’t cover the situation at hand.

“The Sharia court may, at the federal level only (which … excludes Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah), also hear appeals of certain criminal cases including rape, robbery, driving under the influence of alcohol and related crimes, which were originally tried in lower criminal courts,” according to the US Consulate website for Dubai/UAE.

It should be noted that more secular Arab countries recognise and prosecute rape as a punishable crime for the perpetrator, although the social taboo attached to it leads many victims to remain silent. For instance, in Egypt, men found guilty of rape (though marital rape is not illegal) face sentences ranging between three years and life, though it is estimated that only 10% of rapes are ever reported. Tunisia, where marital rape was made illegal in 2008, probably has the most supportive legal system for rape victims in the Arab world

Punishing the victim

Gali, a salon manager at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort in Fujairah, said the last thing she remembered about the incident was having a drink at the staff bar when another employee put ice in her drink. Later that night, hotel security staff were alerted that screaming could be heard from Gali’s room. Investigating the noise, they found the woman naked and unconscious with several men in the room.

Gali says she woke up the next day confused and in pain. She took herself to hospital and was informed by medical staff that she had been sexually assaulted. When she was discharged from hospital she was asked to go to a police station to make a statement.

That’s when it started going all wrong.

“I realised when I was put in a police car that I was being taken to jail,” she is reported to have said. “I didn’t even know what the charges were until five months into my sentence!”

Fast-forward a couple of years and today Gali is looking to understand what happened and is keen to get answers from the Australian government and her employer as to why she didn’t have more information and warnings about the treatment of women in rape cases in the UAE.

If not ill-advised Gali was certainly ill-informed about the world that she was entering. A world where men make and (apparently) break the rules. The UAE, and especially Dubai, appears to be suffering from a split personality. Considered by many of its neighbours as the ‘liberal and tolerant’ emirate (interpret that as you wish), Dubai seems to have a love-hate relationship with the West. Love the women, Dunkin’ Donuts, Palm Island parties … hate the women, Dunkin’ Donuts, parties!  

According to a blogger on Escape-Artist, Dubai is setting itself up as the tourism and party town of the Middle East, but with the party comes the party people and inevitably the sleeze: “It’s already the prostitution capital of the Middle East. Brazen Russians in short skirts and halter-tops frequently solicit right on the street. There are thousands of girls who have come from the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe to ‘work’. Then there are the fun-loving girls who fly out from Europe (and the States) to hook up with affluent guys,” the blogger comments in a post entitled ‘Sex in the city’.

“What’s interesting – and a little irritating – is that a lot of local guys have no problem with being married and having girlfriends on the side (not an attitude restricted only to local guys). Local women, on the other hand, are not even allowed to chat on the telephone with a man outside the family,” the writer continues.

On the Australian embassy’s UAE site, under ‘Services for Australians’ emergency contact information is provided and a statement that: “One of the main functions of the Australian embassy is to provide a range of services (within limits) to Australian citizens.”

The ‘within limits’ is linked to a page on its smarttraveller.gov.au website which spells out what the limits are: “Consular staff cannot use their position to influence unduly or bypass local laws or processes, even when these would appear by Australian standards to be unfair or unnecessarily arduous. While consular staff can sometimes use their knowledge and understanding of the local environment to facilitate support, they must work within the legal and administrative constraints applying in their host country.”

The UAE embassy site has assorted information about passports, travel information, some tax and repatriation information and a section called ‘Living in UAE or Qatar’. No obvious or apparent mention of how to deal with UAE customs and laws or warnings to young female travellers about the risk of sexual abuse.

However, if you follow the link to the ‘Latest travel advisories and other traveller hints’, then the ‘Travel advice’ page, then scan down to the ‘United Arab Emirates’ and on that page under the ‘Local laws’ section it states: “When you are in the UAE be aware that local laws and penalties, including ones that appear harsh by Australian standards, do apply to you. If you are arrested or jailed, the Australian Government will do what it can to help you but we can’t get you out of trouble or out of jail. Custodial sentences would be served in local jails.”

It continues: “The UAE is a Muslim country and its local laws reflect the fact that Islamic practices and beliefs are closely applied. Legal and administrative processes may be substantially different from those in Australia. If you are arrested, you may face a significant period of detention before your case comes to trial. You should familiarise yourself with local laws before you travel. […] Common law relationships, homosexual acts and prostitution are illegal and subject to severe punishment. Adultery is also a crime.”

It also states: “It is illegal to harass women. Harassment includes unwanted conversation, prolonged stares, touching any part of the body, glaring, shouting, stalking or any comments that may offend.”

In the ‘Travel tips’ section of smarttraveller.gov.au, under the ‘Sexual assault overseas’, the Australian governments offers a number of tips to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault. And the site states: “Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. Try not to blame yourself. The perpetrator is the only one responsible for the assault. No one deserves to be raped or assaulted.”

(That’s one for the books, then!)

And after some further research and surfing, your reporter could not find an express mention that filing a complaint for rape without four male witnesses to back up your story may well land the victim in jail for adultery.  

Gali’s story highlights something of a disconnect in this part of the world between materialism and Westernism. It is a poignant reminder that the swish hotels and (fake) beaches can lull a visitor into thinking they are in a Western land. But this can be illusionary, and travellers and guest workers may quickly fall foul of UAE laws. Dubai’s party and glitz blitz can never mask what lurks beneath.

Note: This article was updated to clarify the location of the incident.
 
This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Ray O’Reilly. All rights reserved.
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