UN investigator criticises UAE justice system

A United Nations investigator provided a rare glimpse into the workings of the UAE’s justice system yesterday. At the end of a nine-day official visit to the Emirates, Gabriela Knaul, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, presented her initial findings in a news conference.

Mrs Knaul, who is a judge from Brazil, called for an independent committee to investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention."

She told reporters she had received "credible information and evidence" that detainees are arrested without warrant, blindfolded, taken to unknown places and held incommunicado, sometimes for months.

She said she also had evidence of detainees being "tortured and/or subjected to ill-treatment" including by being put in "electric chairs".

The UAE’s foreign ministry responded in customary fashion by accusing Mrs Knaul of besmirching the country:

“We regret that some comments of the Special Rapporteur were based on information from undisclosed sources and were consistent with the politically motivated campaign of certain groups to tarnish the reputation of the UAE, making it difficult to evaluate the credibility and impartiality of this information and hence the validity of the issues raised.”

It did however agree to “carefully consider” her final report when it is issued.

Mrs Knaul said that at one point during her visit she had been under surveillance by the authorities and she had also been prevented from visiting prisons or meeting certain detainees.

Referring to recent trials of people accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, she criticising "an apparent lack of transparency during both the investigation phase and court proceedings", adding that "the lack of transparency is compounded when the court hearings are not public".

Although independence of the judiciary is guaranteed (in theory) by the constitution, Mrs Knaul said the judicial system “remains under the de facto control of the executive branch of government."

One specific problem that she highlighted is the extensive use of 
non-Emirati judges. Unlike Emirati judges who have security of tenure, foreign judges are employed on one-year contracts which may not be renewed if they displease the authorities.

Mrs Knaul suggested that all judges should be guaranteed the same working conditions to ensure their independence. It that was not possible, foreign judges should be replaced with Emirati nationals.

Currently, about 60% of the judges are non-Emiratis, though in the past the figure has been as high as 90%.

Possibly the most bizarre aspect of the UAE justice system is that defence lawyers do not necessarily have access to the laws under which their clients are being tried.A state security law promulgated in 2003 is often cited in court cases but defence lawyers can’t refer to its content because it has never been published.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 6 February 2014