A couple who severely abused their nine-year-old daughter had their sentences reduced by three years yesterday by the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeal. The case of the Emirati girl was highlighted by authorities in a move to raise awareness of child abuse. Her father and stepmother were originally sentenced to 10 years in prison on April 26 by the Criminal Court of First Instance and fined a total of Dh160,000 (US$43,570).
The public prosecution appealed, demanding the maximum penalty of 15 years. The parents also appealed in hopes of reducing the sentence. The Appeal Court hearing was closed to the public at the request of the father. The father, dressed in blue prison overalls, walked up to the judge as the verdict was delivered. With no expression on his face, he returned to his seat. His wife, who is believed to be pregnant, was not present. Despite the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department's renewed call for transparency, the judge declined to give any reason for reducing the sentence.
The girl, who has been recovering in Al Mafraq Hospital, was admitted in February when her father claimed she had fallen off her bicycle. She had severe bruises, burns and scars on her body. According to medical reports she was 80 per cent physically disabled. Doctors who examined her doubted the father's claim and contacted the police who arrested him and the girl's stepmother. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, visited her in hospital along with his daughter. Both he and Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Minister of Interior, spoke out against child abuse and have personally committed themselves to the wellbeing of children.
The April 26 hearing received nationwide attention in an effort to bring the issue of child abuse to the surface. It marked the first case in which journalists were invited by the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department to attend court proceedings. At the initial hearing, the father insisted he was "protecting" his daughter. The stepmother, who was accused of doing most of the hitting, confessed to beating the child to teach her not to "touch herself".
In an emotional outburst, the man's mother recounted how her granddaughter would confide in her about the abuse by the stepmother. The man's family condemned him in court for failing to stop his own daughter being abused. The reduced sentence came as a surprise to Dr Leena Amiri, a child psychiatrist and lecturer at Al Ain University Medical School, who is among a team handling the child's healing process.
"I am shocked, to be honest," she said. "It really sends the wrong message that we are too lenient about something that surprisingly came out in public after a long time. It raises more questions than it answers." Asked if the child was expected to make a full recovery, she added: "It's too early to tell at this stage, but we are hopeful because she is getting the best attention possible. I just hope we can all learn from this tragedy."
This case has opened discussion on the Child Rights Act, which is being proposed by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The draft law promises to criminalise child abuse and institute a foster care system in which abused children can be taken into state custody. It further sets penalties on people who know of abuse and fail to report it, such as housemaids and family members, with fines of Dh2,000 to Dh10,000. While the proposed law has yet to be introduced in the Federal National Council for debate, there are existing laws under which parents can be prosecuted for abuse. The new law would be the first comprehensive legal document dedicated to children's rights.