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  • Shahid Bolsen, Radha Stirling

Abu Dhabi's New Tourism Court

Of course it is an encouraging and hopeful sign that the UAE is recognizing that there are enormous problems with the country's legal system; to the extent that they have decided to create a new and separate court and prosecution department for tourists. It is certainly true that ignorance of the laws and cultural misunderstandings do often lead to unnecessary criminal cases against tourists. However, the ignorance and misunderstanding are not always on the part of the tourist, but rather on the part of law enforcement officials themselves. Implicit in the creation of this new court is an acknowledgement that the existing system often fails to properly investigate cases, and that due process is frequently discarded. Rather than establishing a court system for tourists that operates with greater integrity, we hope the UAE would reform the legal system as a whole to meet such standards for all people, not just tourists.

However, if the UAE can expedite its court proceedings and the return of even some tourist's passports, this is a step towards improvement. As it stands, tourists who are accused of minor offences can be detained (either in detention or on bail) in the UAE for sometimes six months or more. During proceedings, they are not allowed to work and there are no effective charities providing accommodation or support. They will also have to instruct their own expensive lawyers and many people just can't afford to do this. If a tourist intends to visit for just a week, they have usually carefully budgeted to be able to afford this time and an unexpected "forced holiday" of six months can leave them homeless if they don't have family to support them. In the end, if they are acquitted, the biggest punishment has been the forced holiday. Most of them lose their employment back home and return completely broke and traumatized.

If misdemeanors could be heard by Courts within a maximum timeframe of say, two weeks, this would reduce a LOT of anguish and reduce the amount of negative international press.

How the authorities classify whether a case should go to the Tourism Court is yet to be seen and will obviously need to be carefully monitored. The cases that we have seen over the years that could be heard in a tourism court involve accusations of rude or insulting behavior, accusations of road rage (e.g. Middle finger), swearing, public drunkenness, inappropriate clothing, photographing prohibited sites or members of the public, kissing in public or holding hands etc. In many of these cases, the accused was retained in the UAE for up to 6 months (or more) before being deported.

We also hope that their goal to improve investigations results in the alleviation of false allegations and an increased burden of proof requirement on the prosecution services.

The details have yet to be provided and we hope that this converts into a judicial improvement, rather than just a simply public relations manoeuvre.

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