x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dubai sex case offers lessons both in the UAE and abroad

There is clearly a long way to go in dealing sensitively with cases of alleged sexual assault, but outsiders would do well to obtain the facts.

The case of Marte Deborah Dalelv, the 24-year-old Norwegian interior designer who was sentenced to 16 months' imprisonment for sex out of wedlock and pardoned yesterday, offers lessons both inside and outside the UAE. Here at home, there is clearly a long way to go in dealing sensitively with cases of alleged sexual assault. Elsewhere, before accusing the UAE of criminalising a victim of rape, rights groups and foreign media would do well to obtain the facts.

In this case, Ms Dalelv reported to police that she had been raped by a business colleague in his hotel room. An investigation began. A few days later Ms Dalelv said she had made the allegation of rape under the influence of alcohol. She said the sex had been consensual, and withdrew her complaint. With that second statement, Ms Dalelv effectively admitted having committed three criminal offences in UAE law: having sex outside wedlock, consuming alcohol without a licence and making a false statement alleging a crime.

It was for those offences that she was sent to prison, not for being a victim of rape. The fact is that UAE courts regularly prosecute rape with the full force of the law, giving the victims some sort of justice. Nevertheless, this case illustrates the need for new thinking on how to investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual violence, in which victims can themselves become the accused.

The National has long argued for better protections for victims of sexual violence. Dubai Police have found that only 9.5 per cent of sexual assault victims have reported the crime, with most remaining silent for fear of being prosecuted themselves. The result is that sexual criminals roam the streets with impunity. No woman should have to endure such fear.

There are precedents for reform. The UAE has aggressively tackled the scourge of human trafficking, with a law in 2006 that prohibits prosecutors from charging a victim of trafficking who reports what has happened to them to the police, even if in doing so the victim admits to consensual sex. Judicial authorities have also campaigned for a more victim-centred approach to sexual crime. That approach, however, has yet to be embraced by the legal system. The police have made strides in protecting victims of sexual violence, from improving evidence-gathering techniques to encouraging victims to report attacks.

But we must all do better. Ms Dalelv was pardoned, her life has changed. Real change will be when every victim of rape can report the crime, confident in the knowledge that she herself is not a criminal.