ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—A United Nations human rights expert said Wednesday that the United Arab Emirates’ judiciary is under the “de facto control” of the country’s executive branch, adding that the government should allow independent investigations into claims of torture if it does not want its image to suffer.
The initial findings by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Gabriela Knaul offer a rare look into the Gulf Emirates’ judicial system.
She said she discovered credible claims of detainees who were held incommunicado for months, exposed to extreme temperatures, and sometimes electrocuted.
The UAE, home to modern skyscrapers and towering global ambitions, prides itself on being a cosmopolitan hub with cities like Dubai that attract professionals from around the world.
However, several cases shed light on the tensions in the Emirates between cosmopolitan modernity and the country’s legal system. Many involve Westerners whose cases are often more publicized than the Emirates’ significant population of South Asians working in construction.
A U.S. citizen was held for nine months for his role in an online parody video about youth culture in Dubai. In another case, a Norwegian woman who reported she had been raped was sentenced to 16 months in prison for having sex outside marriage. Her sentence was eventually dropped, but the case pointed to wider issues of traditional views on sex and alcohol.
In 2009, a British couple was sentenced to one month in prison after an Emirati woman claimed they engaged in an overly passionate kiss. Motorists have been convicted for a rude gesture in a moment of road rage.
Political dissidents have also been prosecuted. In November, a UAE state worker received a two-year sentence for Twitter posts about the trial of 94 people suspected of ties to an Islamist faction.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur was free to present her findings to journalists on the last day of her trip in the UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi—an unusual event in the Arabian Peninsula, where criticism of the ruling system can be a punishable crime and unfettered access to state institutions is nearly unheard of.
She came to the UAE from Qatar, where she was on a similar mission. She told journalists in Qatar last week that the judicial system there also faces serious challenges and that the executive’s interference in the work of the judiciary, particularly in cases involving high-level persons or businesses, is still a matter of concern. She said migrant workers face hurdles in seeking access to justice.
The U.N. special representative said the UAE government invited her to conduct the visit and that she met with senior officials. While in the country, Knaul says, she was followed in one instance by authorities during her nine-day trip and barred from visiting prisons or meeting certain detainees.
Knaul says she came across credible information about instances where detainees were tortured.
“Persons have been arrested without a warrant, at any time of day and night. They are blindfolded and brought to unknown places. They are held incommunicado sometimes for months. They are submitted to very strong, difficult situations… like very cold temperatures, hot temperatures. They suffer different types of torture and ill-treatment,” she said.
She did not discuss specific cases related to dozens of Islamist detainees with alleged Muslim Brotherhood ties, but said she has corresponded with the government about complaints of due process during those trials. The cases reflect widespread angst among Gulf monarchs that Islamist opposition groups are plotting against their rule.
The U.N. special representative cautioned that without an investigation into claims of torture, the perception that the UAE violates the rights of it citizens will undermine the rule of law, the nation’s authority and its international image.
Last month, Dubai authorities cancelled a Human Rights Watch event because the group lacked a government permit. The New York-based group was due to discuss its latest report alleging the UAE stifled free expression and carried out “manifestly unfair trials” against dissidents last year.
In her eight-page report, Knaul said that power is often centralized in the hands of prosecutors influenced by heads of government and state security services. The prosecution investigates crimes, issues arrests and search warrants, initiates criminal proceedings and enforces criminal judicial decisions. Prosecutors also play a role in overseeing detention centres.
Additionally, non-Emirati judges are not guaranteed the same conditions of work as their Emirate counterparts, which is necessary to protecting their independence.
“The judicial system remains under the de facto control of the executive branch of government,” she said.
Assistant Foreign Minister for Legal Affairs Abdul Rahim Al-Awadi said in a statement carried by the official WAM news agency that the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed in the constitution.
“Judges, in discharging their duties, are subject to no authority other than the law and their own conscience,” he said, adding that UAE officials have received Knaul’s recommendations and will consider them as part of an on-going effort to strengthen the judiciary and implementation of human rights.
Knaul also described difficulties faced by defence lawyers, including working without copies of a state security law that was enacted in 2003, but never published. She says the law is regularly invoked in criminal cases. Also worrying, she said, is that defendants do not have the right to appeal verdicts issued by the state security court.