Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 16 November 2016
It is a well-known fact that different countries have very different legal systems. But many women travellers don’t understand what it actually means until something terrible happens, such as a rape. According to reports from Dubai, a British woman is facing charges – and a possible prison sentence – after telling the police she was gang-raped in a hotel last month.
The woman’s relatives say she told the police she had been lured to a hotel room by two British men who raped her and left the country shortly afterwards. They claim that instead of investigating the allegation, the police arrested her and charged her with having extra-marital sex. She has been released on bail but the authorities have confiscated her passport and she faces a £24,000 bill to cover her legal fees. ‘She is staying with an English family but she is absolutely terrified’, said a friend.
If these claims are accurate, it would not be the first time a victim of an alleged rape has been prosecuted in Dubai. It is one of the biggest cities in the United Arab Emirates and a popular tourist destination, but it also has some of the strictest laws in the world about sex and alcohol. Three years ago, a 24-year-old Norwegian woman went to the police in Dubai, claiming she had been raped during a business trip, only to find her own conduct under suspicion.
The woman was charged with having extramarital sex, drinking alcohol and perjury, and given a 16-month prison sentence. She was pardoned by the vice-president and allowed to leave Dubai only after she withdrew the rape claim. She insisted she retracted it because she had been warned that no one would believe her.
In 2008 two British tourists were jailed for three months for having consensual sex on a beach in Dubai, although the sentence was later suspended. Few people in this country would approve of such behaviour but the treatment of alleged rape victims in some Middle Eastern countries should and does cause outrage.
It is difficult enough to report a rape in the UK, where the conviction rate remains scandalously low. But UAE is one of a number of states where rape is regarded not as sexual violence but an offence against laws banning sex outside marriage. It is a reflection of the low status of women, affecting local women even more than foreigners although cases involving the latter are more likely to cause an outcry.
The UAE is not the only country where such laws exist, although the Foreign Office has previously said that Britons are proportionately more likely to be arrested there than anywhere else in the world. It says it is aware of the case and is working to support the woman and her family.
The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has yet to comment even though he made reducing violence against women one of his priorities in his previous job as Mayor of London. Johnson has talked to victims of sexual violence and he understands the damage it inflicts. So did one of his predecessors at the Foreign Office, William Hague.
It may be that the British government is still trying to get a clear picture of the case – the FCO has reportedly said it is aware of the case and is providing support to the woman and her relatives as well as remaining in contact with local authorities.
Sometimes there is an anxiety that ministers publicly criticising other countries’ treatment of their citizens will make matters worse. At the same time, the UK is publicly committed to observing and promoting equal rights. As we wait for more details of this latest arrest in Dubai, the Foreign Secretary should reflect that his job gives him a rare platform to speak up for victims of sexual violence – and to call out laws which by any modern standards are a disgrace.