DUBAI, U.A.E. — In a case that raises concerns about the consistency of justice in the United Arab Emirates, a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family who was captured on video tape torturing and raping a business partner in a dispute over a $5,000 grain deal has been acquitted of all charges.
A local court found that Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the half-brother of Abu Dhabi ruler and U.A.E. president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, could not be held accountable for the attack because he was acting under the influence of medication.
The incident occurred in 2004. It became an international cause celebre and a major embarrassment for the U.A.E. last year when ABC News in the U.S. showed video of Sheikh Issa beating his victim with a nail-studded plank, raping him with a cattle prod, setting his genitals on fire, rubbing salt in the wounds and stuffing sand in his mouth before running him over with an SUV.
The victim, an Afghan grain merchant named Mohammad Shahpoor, spent several months in the hospital recovering from the attack.
Four other men were also charged in the incident, which took place on a farm owned by Sheikh Issa. They are seen in the video facilitating Sheikh Issa’s attack. Three of them were found guilty of assault and given jail sentences ranging from one to three years.
The verdicts were announced Sunday in a brief court session held under tight security. According to local press accounts, a grateful Shahpoor expressed his satisfaction with the outcome by kissing his attacker on both cheeks.
Sheikh Issa’s lawyer, Habib al-Mulla, said the trial had demonstrated the U.A.E.’s commitment to the rule of law.
"The fact that this trial is taking place is a sign that the U.A.E. is showing that everyone in this country can be put in front of law and judged," he said.
During the trail, the defense argued that Sheikh Issa was the victim of an elaborate blackmail scheme hatched by two other business associates, Bassam and Ghassan Nabulsi, who supposedly plied Sheikh Issa with medications and then orchestrated the attack.
The Nabulsi brothers, who now live in the U.S. and who brought the videotape to the media’s attention, were convicted in absentia by the U.A.E court and sentenced to five years in prison for attempted blackmail.
Lawyers here readily acknowledge that the U.A.E.’s court system can appear fickle to outsiders.
Last week, the British press reported the case of a British woman of Pakistani origin who was allegedly raped by a hotel employee in Dubai. The woman and her boyfriend were in Dubai to celebrate their engagement. But when local police discovered she was a Muslim and that she had been drinking alcohol, they charged her and her boyfriend with adultery.
Courts in Dubai also are notoriously strict in dealing with foreigners who bounce checks. A bad check for even a small amount can frequently lead to a jail sentence.
But the government does not hold itself to the same high standard. Last month, when a government-owned investment company was on the verge of defaulting on a $4.1 billion loan, creditors were warned that they would get nowhere pursuing the matter in local courts.
Human rights organizations were not impressed by the acquittal in Sheikh Issa’s case.
"If the U.A.E. government really wants to stop torture and to restore its sullied image, one trial will not be enough," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch.
"While Sheikh Issa's prosecution is a positive step, it is not a substitute for the institutional reforms needed to prevent torture," she said.
A U.S. diplomat who observed the proceedings had no comment, but Congressman James McGovern (D-Mass.) criticized Sheikh Issa’s exoneration.
"I think anybody who saw the tape that I saw where a member of the royal family was torturing this man from Afghanistan — I think it gives you pause," McGovern told Voice of America.
"At the end of the day, my hope is that the U.A.E. will get its act together and punish people no matter what their stature is if they commit crimes. I do believe that's something the United States should be urging," he said.