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Between a rock and a hard place: Saeed al Ghailani at the Dubai Courts.
Between a rock and a hard place: Saeed al Ghailani at the Dubai Courts.

Bulletproof case

The case of an onyx said to render its wearer bulletproof has transfixed the Emirates.

We've gone a few weeks without an update in the case of QM. He is the Yemeni man currently facing imprisonment for attempting to sell an onyx for $500 million (Dh1.8billion). The alleged crime? Attempting to con the public by falsely describing the stone as possessing powers that render its wearer impervious to bullets. One might expect QM's defence to include the suggestion that anyone with half a billion dollars to spare would probably be shrewd enough to avoid dropping it on a non-magical onyx. The chances of his actually making a sale (fraudulent or otherwise) were absurdly low.

Instead, QM and his lawyer, Saeed al Ghailani, are hinging his fate on the notion that the onyx is indeed magical. Their rhetoric has two elements, the first being extreme conviction: QM has repeatedly implored the court to test the onyx by trying to shoot him while he wears it. "I am ready," he said, "to face the death sentence if proven wrong" (he is currently facing a six-month sentence, followed by deportation). He has also insisted that any possible buyer would have had the chance to test the onyx to their satisfaction before buying it.

This certitude is complemented by adherence to the principle that our world is wide and strange, and therefore even the most implausible hypotheses deserve a hearing. I recently met Sherif Emara, the legal adviser handling the case for Ghaiani's practice (Ghailani himself was unavailable), to discuss the case. "I've had this job for 15 years," he said. "Every day, I'm surprised by something. Every day is new. I asked [QM] 'Are you sure, are you sure, are you sure?' And by the way, if he is cheating, why does he say he wants to try it on himself? An expert should test it and decide."

In response to this line of reasoning (and QM's repeated insistence that he first discovered the onyx's powers in an experiment involving the stone, a sheep and a handgun), the Dubai Court of Appeal ordered that the stone be tested for special "electromagnetic powers." After Dubai police reported back that they lacked the proper equipment (Ghailani called this a "major twist"), it was sent to the Dubai Metals and Commodities Centre, where it will remain for confidential testing until at least sometime next week.

Emara's explanations of QM's actions can be hard to follow (apparently it is important that there are actually two stones, one with the mark of the gun, the other with a mark of the fish), and he has a less-than-expert grasp of magnetics ("It's a miracle - nobody knows."). But there is something compelling about his straightforwardness. "If the expert says the stone has a high value and is not a duplicate, but that it has no power, [QM] is guilty." And, he says, "If the expert says the stone has a power, but does not have a high value, he is guilty. If it has both, he will be released.

"Why did we accept this case? We are clever in criminal cases. Our client came to us because we are very clever. And this type of case makes a lot of news." The news media plays an undeniably critical part in Ghailani's business strategy. On the table in his reception room there is a book of clippings labelled What The Newspapers Say. It is filled with accounts of Ghailani's recent legal arguments: that a French boy who claimed to be raped was in fact suffering from a disease that made him seek submissive sex; that the same boy (ultimately vindicated by the Dubai Court of Appeal) was a proven liar because he was HIV negative despite the fact that one of the men he accused of raping him had AIDS; that a man charged with planning a drug deal was innocent because voices of multiple personalities in his head made him do it (he was set free); and so on.

And Emara is right. Cases like these generate a lot of news and talk. They appeal to our imagination, invite strong opinions about the nature of reality and remind us that humans are prone to disagree on this front. And the news coverage makes Ghailani Dubai's most talked-about defence lawyer, the go-to man for characters in trouble - even those who cannot afford an onyx to protect them. * Peter C Baker

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