AL-AIN, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) - A member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family took the stand in court on Monday over a video that appears to show him torturing an Afghan man, pleading not guilty to rape and inflicting bodily harm.
The trial, the first of a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, follows U.S. network ABC’s airing in May of footage that seemed to show Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan abusing Mohammed Shahpoor, an Afghan grain merchant.
The man is 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 in 2004.
The incident embarrassed the UAE, the world’s third-largest oil exporter, at a time when it was trying to improve its rights image after criticism from its top Western ally, the United States, and rights groups in recent years.
Abu Dhabi prosecutors subsequently detained Sheikh Issa, a son of the late UAE founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, but news only emerged last week that a trial had begun two months ago.
Monday was Sheikh Issa’s first day in court as the defense began its case.
Dressed in a traditional white dishdasha, a smiling Sheikh Issa appeared for the two-hour session in al-Ain with a language teacher and a group of bodyguards. Asked how he pled, he answered “innocent,” the only time he addressed the court.
Shahpoor, who ABC said was involved in a financial dispute with Sheikh Issa, sat in silence throughout the hearing.
Six others are accused along with Sheikh Issa, including former business associate Bassam Nabulsi, who made the video available to ABC, and his brother Ghassan. Only two of the other accused were in court. They also pleaded not guilty.
Sheikh Issa’s lawyer, Habib al-Mulla, told Reuters that Shahpoor had dropped legal action in 2004.
“A settlement was made with the victim in 2004. He was compensated and dropped charges against Sheikh Issa. The only reason we are here today is because of the tape,” he said.
He told the court the tape had been doctored and was not admissible as evidence. He said Sheikh Issa had been drugged before the tape was filmed by Ghassan Nabulsi for purposes of extortion. He also said there was no evidence of rape.
The judge adjourned the trial to later this month for doctors to examine medical evidence.
About 80 percent of the 4.2 million population of the UAE, a regional trade and tourism center, are foreigners.
Rights groups have criticized laborers living and working conditions. Many are housed in shanty camps and work long hours in the intense heat and employers often retain their passports.
The UAE says it has taken measures to improve workers’ conditions, combat human trafficking and prostitution, and end the practice of using child camel jockeys.
Writing by Martin Dokoupil and Andrew Hammond