DUBAI // Public decency laws need to be reformed so that punishments can more accurately reflect the severity of the offence, several judges have said.
Sentencing guidelines for such offences leave no room for discretion, they said, warning that a misinterpreted hand gesture could lead to an expatriate being deported.
This week a senior British diplomat set out to educate his country's citizens about how to stay on the right side of the law.
Robert Tinline, the director of consular services at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, visited pupils at Gems Academy in Al Barsha South for a presentation on how to stay out of trouble with authorities - part of a nationwide drive to educate Britons about UAE laws.
However, judges say the enforcement of some of those laws - particularly those surrounding public decency - can create additional problems for expatriates.
While sentencing guidelines for more serious crimes allow judges discretion in weighing the facts of a particular case, guidelines for minor crimes concerning public decency often force them into overly harsh sentences.
"An expatriate who has committed an offence such as raising his hand in a bad gesture should be punished, but not by destroying his chances of returning to this country to make a living," one lower court judge said. More serious crimes such as theft were not punished by deportation, he pointed out.
Public indecency is grouped together with sexual assault as a crime of honour by the UAE Penal Code. An amendment to the code in 2005 made deportation mandatory for expatriates found guilty of such crimes.
"This amendment was put in place because UAE law is built on Sharia," Dr Ali al Jarman, a managing partner at Prestige Advocates, said. Dr al Jarman said that under Sharia, sexual assault included any incident involving physical contact of a person's Awra, or "private area". For a man, that is anywhere between the navel and knees. For women, the area extends to her whole body apart from her face and hands.
Those definitions can easily lead those expatriates who are unfamiliar with UAE laws into trouble.
For instance, couples who showed intimacy in public, regardless of how innocent, would face a mandatory sentence of deportation if convicted.
Offences include adultery, consensual sex, inappropriate gestures and signs, kissing, touching, and intimate movements, according to another judge. Sentences range from a month in prison, in addition to deportation, to death.
In one case, the judge said, he was compelled to deport a man who had been approached and seduced by a cross-dresser.
The man kissed the cross-dresser before discovering that his seducer was a man. After kicking the cross-dresser out, the man found he had been robbed and reported it to police. He was then charged with consensual sex and deported, while the thief was never caught.
"The law is in need of revision," the second judge said. "We hope suspects deny charges and insist on their innocence [so we can avoid] a verdict of deportation and rule a lack of evidence," he said.
The law on minor crimes should give judges the chance to evaluate the facts and circumstances of a particular case, then decide whether deportation was appropriate, said a third judge, who works in the lower courts.
Sentencing guidelines for more serious crimes already allow such discretion. "The broadness of the law gives us space to consider the facts and change the charge according to what is presented to us," said a higher court judge.
Another lower court judge called for the law to take into account the UAE's diversity.