Dubai courts to provide free lawyers to poor defendants

Advocates welcome the initiative as step forward in protecting the rights of those accused of crimes.

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DUBAI // Anyone accused of a criminal offence in a Dubai court, and who cannot afford a lawyer, will be provided with free legal representation from the first public defenders' office in the UAE.

The new service will be set up by the emirate's Community Development Authority (CDA) and is expected to be in operation by 2012.

"We want to raise the standard for human rights," Dr Ghaith Ghanim al Suwaidi, the CDA's chief executive of human rights, said yesterday. "We'll have a meeting with lots of lawyers about how many cases they can take a year, maybe five or six from each lawyer."

An accused person currently has no automatic right to a lawyer except in cases that involve a possible sentence of life imprisonment or execution. Those facing prison terms of between three and 15 years may ask for a court-appointed lawyer, but there is a rigorous approvals process.

Dr al Suwaidi said the new public defenders' office would also supply lawyers to act in family cases to protect the rights of children and women, especially divorcees.

"They need a legal adviser who will ask for their rights," he said. "It's the private sector, but we want to provide something as our responsibility to society."

Some legal firms have already approached the authority to offer their services, he said.

The CDA, which was established in 2008, already supplies legal texts and guidance on how to obtain legal rights. The office is now pushing forward in its role as an advisory body for the community, Dr al Suwaidi said.

Lawyers welcomed the initiative yesterday. "This is a great move by the authority which will ensure that people's rights are kept and maintained," said Dr Ali al Jarman, managing partner at Prestige Advocates and Legal Consultants in Dubai.

"This represents the UAE's commitment to human rights. It will help many people who are innocent or have been wronged but do not have the financial means to appoint lawyers to plead their case," he said.

Another judicial source said three out of four court verdicts currently favoured the prosecution. "A person without a lawyer does not have a good chance to defend himself," he said.

In one such case this year, a 26-year-old man was sentenced to three years in jail for sexually molesting a child after he appeared in court without a lawyer. The lawyer Harun Tahlak handled his appeal and obtained a unanimous "not guilty" verdict from the appellate and cassation courts.

"This initiative is a fantastic one and all sections of society should help in realising it," Mr Tahlak said. "A lot of people face baseless charges but lack the financial means that would enable them to present the court with facts that lead to their acquittal.

"This is also compounded by the number of cases some judges have on their hands. A judge needs someone to guide him through the facts of the case and ensure that defendants do not lose their rights because of their ignorance of legal procedures and technicalities."

Dr al Jarman said strict guidelines should be enforced by the CDA before appointing a pro-bono lawyer for an accused person.

"A thorough background check and a financial check should be carried out to confirm the person's need," he said. "Many law firms handle a number of pro-bono cases every year, but do so only after a check on the merit of the accused."

The percentage of requests accepted and number and types of cases taken will be monitored by the CDA, Dr al Suwaidi said.

Legal experts call for a clearer definition of human trafficking

The UAE and the UN have similar definitions for human trafficking but legal experts say clarification is needed.

Federal legislation on trafficking, known as Law 51, mirrors the UN protocol to prevent and punish trafficking, but judges want the law to be amended, as well as the definition of trafficking. "We want to change some of the articles," said Dr Khalid Ahmed Omar, a legal adviser to the Dubai police.

Trafficking cases are often compounded with other crimes such as rape or prostitution and it is difficult to know whether trafficked people are actually forced, he said.

"They know each other in their country, they share the profits," Mr Omar said. "The UN report calls this trafficking, but it isn't."

Amendments to Law 51 under consideration include placing a greater emphasis on protecting and repatriating victims and working more closely with other countries to stop trafficking.

But local action alone will not solve the problem, according to Dr Ghaith Ghanim al Suwaidi, the human rights chief executive at the Community Development Authority. Better international cooperation is necessary to stop criminal activity, he has said.

* Megan Detrie