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Migrants Denied Justice in Emirati Courts

On January 2, 2014

Despite claims of improving migrants’ access to aid and justice, the United Arab Emirates' legal system continues to deny migrants fair trials and access to legal support.  Several cases in the past month illustrate the injustice practiced against migrants in the legal system; in one instance, policemen tortured a 56-year-old Indian man to coerce an admission that he raped a 7-year-old girl. The victim, Ezhur Gangadharan, had worked at an Abu Dhabi for 32 years prior to his arrest last June. Gangadharan was left without food or water for three days and forced to drink from a cell toilet, told he would only be released if he confessed to the crime.

Through the duration of his trial, Gangadharan was provided with a Hindi translator, though he speaks Malayalam. Consequently, his allegations of torture and the inadmissibility of his confession were not translated to the judge.  Aside from this forced confession, the prosecution presented no other evidence to the court.

Confessions under duress are frequent complaints of migrant workers, and their perpetrators – the authorities – often face no penalties.

Prison abuse is an endemic issue in the UAE, but migrants can be particularly vulnerable because they often face restricted access to recourse due to financial obstacles, language barriers, and lack of public interest in their plight.  A recent survey conducted by the Emirati Centre For Human Rights revealed that 75% of Dubai Central Prison inmates endure some kind of physical abuse. A report quotes a prisoner stating: "the police pointed his gun at me and said that he would shoot me if I don't tell I sell drugs." The report highlighted other instances of alleged torture this year, including those lodged by three Britons held in Dubai, a group of Emirati political dissidents, two Syrian nationals and a number of Egyptians.

Migrants are also vulnerable to unjust imprisonment in general, because their actions are highly criminalized and monitored.  This is particularly the case with perceived “infractions” against the UAE’s culture.  In April, Sri Lankan-born Shezanne Cassim was arrested for making a parody video about youth culture in the UAE.  Citing a new cybercrime law, authorities charged Cassim with "endangering national security,”  and have now held him for 8 months. Cassim faces continued imprisonment and an up to $272,000 fine.  In July, an Indian man was arrested for filming a video of an Emirati beating a migrant bus driver; Dubai policies argued “no person has the right to film others or defame them without their knowledge.”

That migrants are more at risk for these “infractions” against the Emirati culture reflects policy attempts to assert migrants as “guests” hosted by the charity of locals, rather than the bedrock of the Emirati economy. This is one reason so many pre-employment training programs focus on policing the behavior of migrants under the guise of “cultural awareness,” rather than informing them of their rights.

Migrants are also criminalized for attempting suicide, even if the cause of their suicide is related to employment conditions. “Family problems” are often listed as the proximate motivation of suicides, and abusive employers are rarely held accountable for the psychological trauma they cause migrants. Earlier this month, an Indonesian domestic worker was sentenced to one month in jail for attempting suicide. Last year, an Ethiopian maid was arrested and fined by the police for attempting to commit suicide after her employers denied her payment for three months.

In theory, all Emirati residents are held to strict anti-adultery laws. But in practice, migrant workers are at higher risk for imprisonment and severer penalties, in part because foreigners are perceived as corrupting local values. Last November, courts tried Bangladeshi domestic worker for leaving their original employers and for having a child outside of wedlock. The two claim to have been married, only failing to obtain a marriage certificate in the UAE. The husband was deported three months ago, and the woman is currently awaiting her deportation.

Migrants charged with crimes often do not have the benefit of significant consular support. Though the UAE assigns lawyers to represent imprisoned migrants in court, access to translators and other general legal guidance is often severely limited.  Embassies often do not intervene into criminal unless a death penalty has been reached.  Some migrants have created crowd-sourced funding to fill the gaps of their governments.

The full report released by the Emirati Centre for Human Rights is available here.