ABU DHABI // A judge has ordered a retrial in the case of a woman who faces up to a half-million dirhams in fines for uttering seven words: “Go away, you animal! You are impolite!”
The dispute, which began at the 2008 Sharjah Book Fair, pits the expatriate woman against an Emirati lawyer. Both blame the other for the conflict, which they have taken all the way to the Supreme Court.
In recently released documents, the Supreme Court justices upheld the lawyer’s arguments for damages, but said the woman’s arguments on verbal abuse charges had been unfairly rejected in the lower courts. The entire civil case should be retried, the court held.
“The decision [of the lower courts] has dismissed her defence in this particular argument,” wrote Chief Justice Abdulaziz Abdulaziz of the Federal Supreme Court. “It is clear from [police and prosecutors’] records that she insisted [the lawyer] attacked her with obscene words and that he harassed her and wanted to chat with her, but she did not give him the chance to do that.
"This is a primary argument which, if the decision examined it carefully, would probably change the outcome of the case."
He sanctioned the judge's right to reduce or even cancel the compensation in a retrial.
Experts say a growing number of cases like this are straining the legal system because of the difficulty of providing evidence and establishing the context of a verbal attack.
In the UAE, only verbal abuse pertaining to the sexual honour of a person would be tried under Sharia. For guilt to be proven, the attack must have been made in public and one reliable witness must testify.
If convicted, a person would be sentenced to 80 lashes and would never be accepted as a valid witness in a Sharia-based case.
Many legal experts decry such cases for draining court time and resources. Nashwa al Qubaisi, a lawyer from Abu Dhabi, said she often turned down clients with such cases, and that many of the allegations were exaggerated or made up.
Nehro Hajjaj, another lawyer in Abu Dhabi, said he had an Egyptian client who was convicted in September of insulting a female CID officer in the street without realising it.
"He was driving and tried to turn left, but she blocked his way " Mr Hajjaj said. "He motioned to her in an offensive way, and she took him to a police station."
Mr Hajjaj said although there were no witnesses, "They told him it was not a big issue and it would be solved if he went and apologised to the woman. He apologised in front of other people, which meant he confessed he insulted her."
The man was sentenced to one month in prison and fined Dh15,000.
Dr Hassan al Hammadi, a magistrate at the Supreme Court, stressed that judges must evaluate the seriousness of a verbal abuse accusation depending on the situation.
In the Supreme Court case, the unidentified plaintiff filed a report with police that an expatriate woman verbally attacked him at the Sharjah Book Fair on November 9, 2008. He said he was discussing an issue with her when she started insulting him and allegedly told him in Arabic: "Go away, you animal! You are impolite!"
In most Arab cultures, calling someone an animal is a serious insult.
Police referred the woman, who was not identified, to prosecutors, who charged her with verbal abuse.
The woman was convicted by the Sharjah Court of First Instance in May. Her sentence, which could include up to one year in prison, was not disclosed in court documents.
After the verdict was announced, the lawyer filed a civil lawsuit against her demanding financial compensation for "moral and financial" damages. He told the court he was a reputable lawyer, and was insulted in public.
“The defendant assaulted him while he was wearing the national dress, which implied she had a deep-rooted malice toward the country and its people,” the lawyer said in court documents.
He also told the courts he wasted a lot of time dealing with the issue in police stations, prosecutors’ offices and court. He asked the civil court to award Dh500,000 for the time he had wasted away from his job, plus 12 per cent a year for late payment.
The Sharjah Court of First Instance found the woman liable, and fined her Dh70,000 and five per cent a year for late payment. Both parties appealed the verdict; the Sharjah Court of Appeals upheld the decision.
They then appealed to the Supreme Court, with the plaintiff arguing he had wasted more time at the appeal court.
The woman argued that the lower court based its decision solely on the claims of the lawyer, who, she said, did not clarify or break down the alleged financial damages. The court further did not specify on what legal grounds it fined her, she added.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument, ruling that "damage includes the losses incurred by the incident or the gains the person missed because of the incident".
The chief justice highlighted the lawyer's visits to the police station, Public Prosecution and the courts as showing "elements of the moral and financial damages" and "valid reasons which are sufficient to issue the verdict".
The chief justice said the lower courts had ignored the woman’s argument that she was harassed and reviled by the lawyer during the confrontation, which caused her moral damage.