Dubai has pardoned a Norwegian woman jailed for extramarital sex after reporting an alleged rape as the emirate responds to growing international criticism of its legal system.

Following intervention from Oslo, Dubai’s ruler pardoned Marte Deborah Dalelv, who had been sentenced to 16 months in prison for having sex outside of marriage and illegal alcohol consumption after the 24-year-old claimed a colleague raped her during a business trip.

The furore was one of a flurry of embarrassing legal cases that put the spotlight on Dubai’s judicial system as the emirate builds its case to host Expo 2020 ahead of an international vote in November.

Questions over due process have also multiplied since the unprecedented trial in the United Arab Emirates capital, Abu Dhabi, of 94 Islamists for seeking to overthrow the government, which convicted 68 Emiratis who had denied the charges.

“This is a short-term PR-driven solution to a systemic problem,” says Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch. “Unless the UAE implements significant reform to its procedures for the reporting of sexual assaults and its laws criminalising extramarital sex there is nothing to prevent this from happening again.”

“The very act of reporting a rape automatically puts a woman in serious danger of being charged with illicit sex,” says Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch.

Diplomats often warn foreigners about the risks of reporting crimes if they have been drinking as they are liable for punishment, even though alcohol is widely available and an important part of the city’s allure across the conservative Gulf.

Balancing the city’s tolerant outlook with growing domestic concern about foreigners’ behaviour – from drinking to skimpy clothing – is emerging as a headache for the authorities.

Once the legal process is set in train, the semi-independent judicial system, manned by expatriate Arabs and Emiratis, generally applies the law without regard for potential criticism.

But the pardon for Ms Dalelv, only one of many alleged sexual assault victims who have been punished for having extramarital relations, highlights the discretion available as the authorities seek to protect the emirate’s international profile.

Three Britons jailed for distributing synthetic marijuana, who claimed they had been tortured in detention, were pardoned earlier this month after media coverage of the case clouded the UAE president’s state visit to the UK earlier this year. The Dubai police denied the Britons were mistreated.

After US pressure, the Dubai authorities last year bailed Zack Shahin, who had been on trial for four years on fraud charges he denies. The US national fled to Yemen, saying his life was in danger, but was stopped by the authorities there and returned to the UAE.

Another controversy, fuelled by debate over social media and at social gatherings for Ramadan, the holy fasting month, has revealed tensions between Emiratis and foreigners’ views of the application of law.

Debate was whipped up last week by a video leaked on to the internet that showed an Emirati customs manager punching an Indian driver after the latter had driven away from a collision between their vehicles.

The road rage incident led to a swift arrest of the official, but sparked criticism when the Indian passer-by who recorded the incident was arrested after the official’s family made a defamation complaint.

“If this video had not been posted on the internet and caused understandable outrage, the official would not have been arrested for what appears to be a serious and sustained assault on a migrant worker,” says Mr McGeehan of Human Rights Watch.

The legal action is one of the UAE’s first applications of its new cybercrime law, which to date has only been used to punish domestic dissenters.

Denying bail for the man who filmed the incident has prompted concerns that the authorities are targeting someone who revealed a crime that would have otherwise probably gone unpunished.

The attacker is liable to a shorter jail term and smaller fine than the man who filmed the abuse, playing into the widely held belief that expatriates are more likely to face the full force of the law than the minority Emirati population.

Many Emiratis, who make up less than 10 per cent of Dubai’s population, have defended the prosecution’s decision to target the man who filmed the incident, saying his video should have been handed direct to the authorities.

“Individuals should not take law into their own hands,” says lawyer Habib al-Mulla. “Otherwise you end up with the situation where everyone thinks their own position is the right one and they can impose that right on other people.”

But Ayesha Almazroui, an Emirati columnist on Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper, says the video – even if defamatory – started a public conversation as well as helping to hold the official accountable.

“Our conflicts cannot simply be avoided by being relegated to the private sphere, behind closed doors. It’s healthy to have an environment where we, as a people, discuss issues and exchange opinions,” she wrote. “This is an important part of change and progress in any society.”

The Dubai government, hit hard by global opprobrium during the financial crisis, has developed a thicker skin when dealing with negative media coverage, and is also investing more in delivering its message.

But from those jailed for defaulting on their debts to travellers incarcerated for carrying prescription medications banned in the UAE, the steady stream of legal own goals damage “brand Dubai”.

Sultan al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati commentator, in an ironic reference to a well-known advert, tweeted: “UAE annual tourism promotion budget ~ $10,000,000s | Jailing person who filmed assault video or reported rape, priceless.”

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