x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE sedition trial: judge with a historic task

UAE sedition trial: Judge Falah Al Hajeri granted The National's Haneen Dajani an interview, giving a glimpse into the huge task he faced.

Judge Falah Al Hajeri faced a huge task when dealing with the sedition trial. Photo courtesy of WAM
Judge Falah Al Hajeri faced a huge task when dealing with the sedition trial. Photo courtesy of WAM
ABU DHABI // Strewn across a long rectangular table in Judge Falah Al Hajeri's office were dozens of files and documents, covering practically every inch of the worn wooden surface.

They were just a small sample of the thousands of documents Judge Al Hajeri and his colleagues have had to peruse and study, consider and remember as they came to judgment on the cases of 94 Emiratis accused of sedition.

It was a rare moment that offered a glimpse of how Judge Hajeri works and what he has had to grapple with for the past four months. In a rare, but brief, interview he stopped to take stock of his career and the major decisions he would be announcing in a matter of days.

"You can ask your questions, just as long as you keep your eyes off the files," he cautioned, ushering me to sit across the table before him.

At 55, Judge Al Hajeri is relatively young for a Supreme Court judge, at the peak of his tenure and the ultimate arbiter in the most high-profile trial in the nation's history.

In a case charged with equal parts politics, national security and global attention, Judge Al Hajeri has demonstrated a steady hand and stood out for his attention to process and fairness, and for listening intently throughout the months of the trial.

It was a highly skilled and professional demonstration of the judge's art that has answered many fears about the case and ultimately built confidence in the judicial system in the eyes of many Emiratis.

"A judge is not a regular employee; he has an authority where only God and his conscience can monitor him," Judge Al Hajeri said. "He is obliged to follow law and Sharia in accordance with the case's incidents and each case has its own circumstances. So out of the judge's expertise and experience comes his judgment reliant on the evidence in front of him."

It is a simple but profound lesson that Judge Al Hajeri learnt from his start in 1982, when he graduated with a law and Sharia degree from United Arab Emirates University and began hearing cases as an assistant judge at the Ministry of Justice.

In 2002, he was appointed to the Federal Supreme Court as a judge in the panel of the court's chief. Three years later he joined the civil court, after which he became chief of the personal affairs court. When a new state security panel was formed last year, Judge Al Hajeri was appointed its chief.

It could never have been planned that way. Judge Al Hajeri, in a moment of introspection, stopped to ponder what might have been had his life taken a different trajectory.

"If a person knew how things will end up, he might have taken a different decision," he said. "When one is young, one is ambitious. I have no regrets over my path, but I might have chosen something else if things went differently." He demurred when asked what that may have been. "I cannot disclose it for certain reasons," he smiled.

A judge's job is infinitely more complex and demanding than even a decade ago, with a flood of electronic evidence now an integral part of cases. That has presented judges with a wealth of new evidence, but also far more to consider. A case such as that of the 94 charged with sedition is particularly complex, and is estimated to be bound in tens of thousands of pages.

But Judge Al Hajeri brushed off the challenge, and said none of it was necessarily new. The legislative system, he said, has progressed in-line with technological developments, with electronic evidence admissible since 2006.

But heading a state security court, with a single trial stage and no opportunity for appeal against the verdict, requires a particularly high degree of awareness and attention to detail to ensure no detail slips by.

"We judges do not hear or see except what is presented in front of us through documents as we follow the book and the sunnah and visible laws," Judge Al Hajeri said.

He wrestles particularly with opening his court to the media, which presents as many problems as benefits. The trial offered Emiratis a remarkable view into the workings of a critical state institution, while also opening the way for some accused and their legal representatives to grandstand, and for outsiders to make public their opinions on the case before all the evidence had been heard.

"I'm against media interference in the justice system since justice has an honourable message and the judge is objective by nature," he said. "The judge is aware that he is ruling on people's honour, money and blood and there is no room for media publicity and fame in that area."

After a few minutes, Judge Al Hajeri returned to the sea of evidence before him to resume his deliberations. But not before stopping to look ahead, and express his ultimate hope.

"I pray to Allah to see UAE justice flourishing with Emirati youth who understand what it means to be a judge," he said. For many, there could be no better role model.