UAE ruling family member acquitted in torture trial

AL-AIN, United Arab Emirates Sun Jan 10, 2010 11:51am EST

Habib al-Mulla, a lawyer for Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, stands outside a court in AL-Ain January 10, 2010. RUTERS/Mosab Omar

Habib al-Mulla, a lawyer for Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, stands outside a court in AL-Ain January 10, 2010. RUTERS/Mosab Omar

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AL-AIN, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) - A member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family was found innocent on Sunday of the torture and rape of an Afghan in a case that embarrassed the Gulf Arab emirate and raised questions over human rights.

The judge reading the verdict at a court in the United Arab Emirates, the world's third largest oil exporter and a U.S. ally, did not give a reason why Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan was exonerated of responsibility for abuse shown in a video first made public on U.S. network ABC last year.

ABC identified one of the people taking part in the abuse as Sheikh Issa.

But a lawyer for the sheikh, a son of UAE founder Sheikh Zayed, said his client was found to have "diminished liability" because two former business associates had drugged him then taken the video to extort money from him.

The two men, Lebanese-American brothers Bassam and Ghassan Nabulsi, were sentenced to five years in absentia and fined 10,000 dirhams ($2,723) for what the judge said was drugging, recording and publishing a video and blackmail.

The judge said the reasoning behind the verdicts would be published at a later date.

Sheikh Issa kissed his lawyer on the head after sentencing was announced but made no comment.

The lawyer, Habib al-Mulla, said the UAE had demonstrated its commitment to the rule of law. "The fact that this trial is taking place is a sign that the UAE is showing that everyone in this country can be put in front of law and judged," he said.

Mohammed Shahpoor, the Afghan grain trader abused in the video, showed no reaction when the verdicts were read out.

RIGHTS RECORD

In the footage, which dates back to 2004, Shahpoor is seen struck with an electric cattle prod, beaten with whips and a plank of wood with a nail in it, and driven over by a car at a desert location near the oasis of al-Ain.

The incident was an embarrassment to the UAE at a time when it was trying to improve its rights image after international criticism over treatment of blue-collar workers and seek U.S. approval for a civilian nuclear energy programme.

A Nepalese security guard shown in the video was also acquitted. A Syrian national was given one year in jail for beating Shahpoor and an Indian and a Palestinian were both sentenced to three years for sodomizing him with a stick.

"If the UAE government really wants to stop torture and to restore its sullied image, one trial will not be enough," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for New-York based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

"While Sheikh Issa's prosecution is a positive step, it is not a substitute for the institutional reforms needed to prevent torture."

A U.S. diplomat attended Sunday's session but made no comment to reporters. The prosecution, the government of Abu Dhabi, did not say if it intended to appeal.

About 80 percent of the 4.2 million population of the UAE, a regional trade and tourism center, are foreigners. Ruling families control each of the seven emirates in the federation, according Emirati nationals few political rights.

(Additional reporting by Raissa Kasolowsky; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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