In Rape Case, a French Youth Takes On Dubai
By THANASSIS CAMBANIS
Published: November 1, 2007
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 31 — Alexandre Robert, a French 15-year-old, was having a fine summer in this tourist paradise on the Persian Gulf. It was Bastille Day and he and a classmate had escaped the July heat at the beach for an air-conditioned arcade.
Just after sunset, Alex says he was rushing to meet his father for dinner when he bumped into an acquaintance, a 17-year-old native-born student at the American school, who said he and his cousin could drop Alex off at home.
There were, in fact, three Emirati men in the car, including a pair of former convicts ages 35 and 18, according to Alex. He says they drove him past his house and into a dark patch of desert, between a row of new villas and a power plant, took away his cellphone, threatened him with a knife and a club, and told him they would kill his family if he ever reported them.
Then they stripped off his pants and one by one sodomized him in the back seat of the car. They dumped Alex across from one of Dubai's luxury hotel towers.
Alex and his family were about to learn that despite Dubai's status as the Arab world's paragon of modernity and wealth, and its well-earned reputation for protecting foreign investors, its criminal legal system remains a perilous gantlet when it comes to homosexuality and protection of foreigners.
The authorities not only discouraged Alex from pressing charges, he, his family and French diplomats say; they raised the possibility of charging him with criminal homosexual activity, and neglected for weeks to inform him or his parents that one of his attackers had tested H.I.V. positive while in prison four years earlier.
"They tried to smother this story," Alex said by phone from Switzerland, where he fled a month into his 10th-grade school year, fearing a jail term in Dubai if charged with homosexual activity. "Dubai, they say we build the highest towers, they have the best hotels. But all the news, they hide it. They don't want the world to know that Dubai still lives in the Middle Ages."
Alex and his parents say they chose to go public with his case in the hope that it would press the authorities to prosecute the men.
United Arab Emirates law does not recognize rape of males, only a crime called "forced homosexuality." The two adult men charged with sexually assaulting Alex have pleaded not guilty, although sperm from all three were found in Alex. The two adults appeared in court on Wednesday and were appointed a lawyer. They face trial before a three-judge panel on Nov. 7. The third, a minor, will be tried in juvenile court. Legal experts here say that men convicted of sexually assaulting other men usually serve sentences ranging from a few months to two years.
Dubai is a bustling financial and tourist center, one of seven states that form the United Arab Emirates. At least 90 percent of the residents of Dubai are not Emirati citizens and many say that Alex's Kafkaesque legal journey brings into sharp relief questions about unequal treatment of foreigners here that have long been quietly raised among the expatriate majority. The case is getting coverage in the local press.
It also highlights the taboos surrounding H.I.V. and homosexuality that Dubai residents say have allowed rampant harassment of gays and have encouraged the health system to treat H.I.V. virtually in secret. (Under Emirates law, foreigners with H.I.V., or those convicted of homosexual activity, are deported.)
Prosecutors here reject such accusations. "The legal and judicial system in the United Arab Emirates makes no distinction between nationals and non-nationals," said Khalifa Rashid Bin Demas, head of the Dubai attorney general's technical office, in an interview. "All residents are treated equally."
Dubai's economic miracle — decades of double-digit growth spurred by investors, foreign companies, and workers drawn to the tax-free Emirates — depends on millions of foreigners, working jobs from construction to senior positions in finance. Even many of the criminal court lawyers are foreigners.
Alex's case has raised diplomatic tensions between the Emirates and France, which has lodged official complaints about the apparent cover-up of one assailant's H.I.V. status and other irregularities. The tension and growing publicity over the case seem to have prompted the authorities to take action.
Mr. Demas, from the Dubai attorney general's office, said he had no intention of prosecuting Alex and was seeking the death penalty for the two adult attackers. "This crime is an outrage against society," he said.
However, the investigation file in Alex's case and a pair of confidential French diplomatic cables obtained by The New York Times confirm the accounts of inexplicable and at times hostile official behavior described by Alex and his parents.
"The grave deficiencies or incoherence of the investigation appear to result, in part, from gross incompetence of the services involved in the United Arab Emirates, but also from the moral, pseudoscientific and political prejudices which undoubtedly influenced the inquiry," the French ambassador to the United Arab Emirates wrote in a confidential cable dated Sept. 6.
Most infuriating to Alex and his mother, Véronique Robert, is that police inaccurately informed French diplomats on Aug. 15, a month after the assault, that the three attackers were disease-free, the diplomats say. Only at the end of August did the family learn that that the 36-year-old assailant was H.I.V. positive. The case file contains a positive H.I.V. test for the convict dated March 26, 2003.
"They lied to us," Ms. Robert said. "Now the Damocles sword of AIDS hangs over Alex."
So far the teenager has not tested positive for H.I.V., but he will not know for sure until January, when he gets another blood test six months after the exposure.
A doctor examined Alex the night of the rape, taking swabs of DNA for traces of the rapists' sperm. He did not take blood tests or examine Alex with a speculum. Then he cleared the room and told Alex: "I know you're a homosexual. You can admit it to me. I can tell."
Alex told his father in tears: "I've just been raped by three men, and he's saying I'm a homosexual," according to interviews with both of them.
The doctor, an Egyptian, wrote in his legal report that he had found no evidence of forced penetration, which Alex's family says is a false assessment that could hurt the case against the assailants.
In early September, after the family learned about the older attacker's H.I.V. status and the French government lodged complaints with the United Arab Emirates authorities, the Dubai attorney general's office assigned a new prosecutor to the case. Only then were forensic tests performed to confirm that sperm from all three attackers had been found in Alex.
Alex stayed in Dubai in order to testify against his attackers, and went back to school in September, despite suffering unsettling flashbacks.
In early October, however, the family said, their lawyer warned Alex that he was in danger of facing charges of homosexuality and a prison term of one year.
Veteran lawyers here say the justice system is evolving, like the country's entire system of governance that has blossomed as the economy and population have exploded in just a few decades. Despite its shortfalls, the United Arab Emirates have combined Islamic values with the best practices from the West to create "the most modern legal system among the Arab countries," said Salim Al Shaali, a former police officer and prosecutor who now practices criminal law.
In business and finance, the nation has worked hard to earn a reputation for impartial and speedy justice. But the criminal justice system has struggled, balancing a penal code rooted in conservative Arab and Islamic local culture, applied to an overwhelming non-Arab population of foreign residents.
A 42-year-old gay businessman who would speak only if identified by his nickname, Ko, described routine sexual harassment by officials during his 13 years living in Dubai. He cut his shoulder-length hair to avoid attention, he said, but after years of living in fear of jail or deportation, he is leaving the country.
Although rape victims here generally keep quiet, some who have been raped in Dubai have shared testimonials in recent days on boycottdubai.com, a Web site started by Alex's mother.
Prosecutors moved forward with the case against her son's attackers only as a result of public pressure and diplomatic complaints, Ms. Robert believes. Now, she hopes, the attention could prompt more humane and even-handed justice for future rape victims here.
On advice of his lawyer and French diplomats, Alex says he will not return to Dubai but wants very much for the men to be convicted.
"Sometimes you feel crazy, you know?" he said. "It's hard, but we have to be strong. I'm doing this for all the other poor kids who got raped and couldn't do anything about it."