Karabus: Understanding the UAE’s legal system

By Khadija Patel 26 April 2013

The Abu Dhabi appeals court rejected the prosecution’s appeal against Professor Cyril Karabus’ acquittal of manslaughter on Wednesday. But according to the law of the country, the prosecution still has another 30 days to launch a second appeal, leading critics to wonder how “modern” the United Arab Emirates really is. By KHADIJA PATEL.

On Thursday, popular cartoonist Zapiro added to the swelling outrage against the continued detention of Dr Cyril Karabus in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. His cartoon depicts a helpless Karabus, jettisoned to a crashed wheel of justice in the forlorn desert, while a vulture in Emirati dress looks ahead, unperturbed.

The oil-rich Abu Dhabi and its neighbouring emirate, Dubai, have been hailed as models of Middle Eastern modernity. Boomtowns that have sprung up from the desert, both cities have rallied against a crippling financial meltdown while building effective, efficient and accessible forms of government that have been exemplars to the rest of the region.

That reputation has suffered in South Africa, however, as headlines announce more bad news about Karabus’ fight for his freedom.

The stationary wagon wheel of justice in Zapiro’s cartoon stands in contrast to reports this week of Dubai police taking their supercars for a spin through the city. To an ordinary South African following the plight of Karabus since last August, the police seem able move through Dubai’s infamous traffic a lot faster than the justice system has worked for Karabus in neighbouring Abu Dhabi. If anything, the entire saga has, as Zapiro suggests, felt rather medieval.

Karabus was tried and convicted in absentia for causing the death of a young Yemeni girl he treated while he worked in the UAE. A retrial was postponed several times before a judge eventually ruled in Karabus’ favour at the Abu Dhabi criminal court. The prosecution lodged an appeal against that acquittal.

And when the court did convene about three weeks ago to hear the appeal, the case was postponed.

This week the Abu Dhabi appeals court reconvened to hear the appeal against Karabus’ acquittal. No sooner had the court convened when reports emerged that the case had been postponed for yet another week.

The postponement stoked outrage among South Africans campaigning for Karabus’ return home. Similarly, the South African government claimed the postponement violated Karabus’ right to a free trial.

“Whilst respecting the independence of the judicial authorities in the UAE, the South African government believes the failure by the UAE authorities to bring the case to a speedy and a just conclusion is in violation of Prof. Karabus’ right to a fair trial,” the department said in a statement.

Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-Operation, Marius Fransman, meanwhile said: “We are disappointed that the judicial authorities in the UAE have once again seen it fit to further prolong the stressful ordeal that Prof. Karabus has been going through since August 2012.”

And then, just as the South African government appeared to have resigned itself to a prolonged appeals process, reports emerged at midday on Wednesday that the presiding judge had actually rejected the appeal and reaffirmed Karabus’ acquittal.

But even as South Africans rejoiced, confusion reigned over what exactly had prompted the rapid judgement.

When the Daily Maverick contacted officials at the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation (Dirco) on hearing reports that the appeal had been rejected, the department was entirely unaware that a judgement on the appeal had been delivered at all. Dirco was expecting a judgement to be read next week. This rejection of the appeal, a full week ahead of schedule, had left them dumbfounded.

Only after contacting the South African mission in the UAE was Dirco able to confirm that the appeal had indeed been rejected.

A leading medical malpractice attorney in the UAE explained, on condition of anonymity, that surprise at the judge’s verdict on Wednesday stems from a misunderstanding of what actually happened in court the previous day. “It was not a postponement,” he explained. “The court adjourned in order for the judge to make a decision.”

When the judge mentioned the next court date – which was widely understood to be the recommencement of proceedings – he says, the judge was actually saying that he would deliver his verdict by that date.

The attorney stressed that while the appeal, and the retrial before it, had suffered several “postponements”, these were not actually delays but adjournments to allow the process to move along.

“These adjournments are not delays; they are necessary to allow the business of the court to be conducted.

“In terms of time scales, they are motoring along,” he said.

“Abu Dhabi is known for going very quickly. It has a strict ‘two-week’ policy. There are two weeks between each hearing.”

“It’s not like the United States or Great Britain, where between indictment and trial, you have a lengthy period and then you have the arguments.

“That’s now how business is conducted here.

“The trial effectively commences when the indictment is laid, so you have different hearings being given.

“I’ve read a lot of people asking why [the Karabus] case has been postponed again, but that’s how it’s done here. It’s done in stages.

“You’d expect to have at least 10-12 adjournments before we get to the end of a matter.

“The trial and the preparation are all really done at the same time.”

He believes that a similar case in South Africa, or his native Great Britain, would have taken far longer to arrive at this stage.

The attorney, who has practised law in the UAE for over 10 years, says the movement of the Karabus case through the Emirati legal system has been riddled with misunderstandings in South Africa. He said his efforts at correcting some of the misunderstandings of what was taking place in online forums had resulted in him being labelled a paid agent of the Emirati government.

While he agrees that the original trial and conviction of Karabus in absentia is deeply problematic, he hastens to add that the UAE, as a civil law system and not a common law system, is not unique in this regard.

The Karabus case has forced scrutiny on the UAE’s medical liability laws.

The attorney says that in 2012, a total of 300 legal complaints were lodged against doctors and medical facilities in the UAE. These complaints ranged from complaints about poor service and ill-kept hospital rooms to more serious claims about doctors’ negligence.

“It is a broad spectrum of different complaints,” he said.

He argues, however, that not all these complaints go the same route as the Karabus case.

“Criminal prosecutions are rare,” he said. “It is relatively unknown for doctors to be criminally prosecuted.

“Most people opt for civil claims.”

The attorney cites the example of Medi Clinic, which has treated over 3 million patients since opening facilities in the UAE in 2007. Since then, he says only 40 cases of medical liability have been brought to the courts and of those, only five were criminal complaints. According to him, no one was arrested for these complaints.

The Karabus case, then, is quite unique even for the UAE.

The case is not the first legal battle involving foreign nationals to cast aspersions on the UAE’s claims of modernity.

In January 2010, Michael Slackman, writing in the New York Times, said: “The financial crisis and now two criminal cases that have generated critical headlines in other countries have demonstrated that the Emirates remain an absolute monarchy, where institutions are far less important than royalty and where the law is particularly capricious — applied differently based on social standing, religion and nationality, political experts and human rights advocates said.”

Certainly the Karabus case points to the arbitrary way the law is handled in the UAE. It certainly has blighted the image of the UAE in the minds of some South Africans, who have even resorted to calling for a boycott against all Emirati products and services until Karabus is allowed to return home.

It is, however, also clear that our understanding of the Karabus case may lack nuanced grasp of Abu Dhabi’s legal system. DM

Read more:

  • Entrenched Monarchy Thwarts Aspirations for Modernity in New York Times

Photo: President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is seen at Khalifa Port during the official inauguration of the container terminal in Abu Dhabi, December 12, 2012. REUTERS/WAM


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