RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The Abu Dhabi government, a staunch U.S. ally, has reversed course and announced that it will launch a “comprehensive review” of the videotaped torture of an Afghan businessman — purportedly inflicted by a member of its ruling family.
The videotape, aired by ABC Television April 22, shows the Afghan, Mohammed Shah Poor, being beaten with a nail-studded wood plank, having his genitals set on fire, his anus pierced by a cattle prod and then repeatedly run over by an SUV.
ABC identified the alleged perpetrator, assisted by someone wearing what appears to be a policeman’s uniform, as Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan.
Sheikh Issa is the son of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, late president of the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf Arab nation comprised of seven semi-autonomous emirates, including Abu Dhabi.
Sheikh Issa’s brothers include current UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who also rules Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy commander of UAE’s armed forces.
Sheikh Issa, a businessman, holds no government position.
According to press reports, he was angered that Poor had allegedly short-changed him in a $5,000 grain deal. During the 2004 assault, he also tormented Poor by stuffing sand in his mouth and pouring salt into his wounds, the video shows.
In its initial response to ABC’s broadcast of the video, UAE’s Interior Ministry acknowledged that Sheikh Issa is the man seen assaulting Poor. But it said the assault was investigated and that the two sides settled the matter “privately,” with the police following “all rules, policies and procedures.”
Poor reportedly survived the torture, but spent months in the hospital recovering from severe internal injuries, according to media reports.
New York-based Human Rights Watch early this week called on the UAE to do more, urging it to set up an independent body to investigate the torture and “the Ministry of Interior’s failure to bring those involved to justice,” according to the group’s website.
Its Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, called the government’s response to the assault “an appalling miscarriage of justice."
On April 29, the Human Rights Office of Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department issued a statement saying that the Abu Dhabi government “unequivocally condemns” the video’s “graphic scenes of physical abuse.”
It promised to carry out “a comprehensive review of the matter immediately and make its findings public at the earliest opportunity.”
The office’s statement added that although the UAE’s Interior Ministry statement had said that the assault “was resolved between the two parties and that no criminal charges were brought,” there appears to be “a violation of human rights” that needs examination.
Human Rights Watch called Abu Dhabi’s promise of a new and thorough review of the incident “a positive first step.”
The U.S. government regards the UAE as a close ally. In January, the two governments signed a nuclear deal, similar to ones with Egypt, Morocco and India, under which the United States will transfer nuclear technology and material to the UAE for its projected power plants. In return, the UAE agrees to abide by international non-proliferation rules and safeguards.
But the torture videotape has prompted U.S. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) to urge a halt to implementation of the agreement until the UAE government responds to human rights concerns sparked by the videotaped abuse.
McGovern made the request in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing “horror and revulsion” at the tape, according to a report on CNN’s website. McGovern asked for “a temporary hold on further U.S. expenditures of funds, training, sales or transfers of equipment or technology, including nuclear, until a full review of this matter and its policy implications can be completed,” the report said.
At Friday's daily State Department press briefing in Washington, department spokesman Robert Wood was asked directly about the video and whether it impacted the UAE nuclear deal (or the "123" deal, as it's called).
QUESTION: I know you touched on this yesterday, but is there anything moving on the UAE 123 deal? The — is that their — well, you know about the disturbing video. Is that holding it up?
WOOD: Sue, as I said yesterday, we are reviewing this agreement. As you know, it’s a holdover from the previous administration. That review, as I mentioned to you, is ongoing. But I don’t have anything further to offer you at this point.
QUESTION: Are you talking to members of Congress about the videotape and how that might impact whether they’re going to support the deal?
WOOD: Well, they’re two separate issues, as I’ve said.
QUESTION: Well, some people are looking at them as one issue, actually.
WOOD: Well, we do talk to Congress about a number of issues. We certainly have had conversations about this agreement with representatives on the Hill. But again, we’re still reviewing it. So you know, I can’t really go into very much detail in terms of, you know, where we go with this agreement at this point. We still need to review it and then we’ll go from there.
Experts in the region said they do not anticipate a major fall-out on bilateral relations because of the tape.
“The U.S. is aware of UAE’s strategic significance, so I cannot imagine that this [will have] serious repercussions in a deterioration of relations with the United States,” said a professor of political science at a university in the Gulf area who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the case.
The professor said he also doubted that the tape will have major domestic reverberations because of the current global economic crisis, which has prompted the government to take steps to protect its citizens from the downturn. It is thus seen, he said, as “the ultimate protector of Emiratis.”
The State Department has responded in a low-key manner to the incident, with Wood saying only, "We urge all governments to fully investigate allegations of criminal acts."
According to the State Department’s annual human rights review, published in February, “there were unverifiable allegations of tortured political prisoners” in the UAE during 2008, “as well as reports that a royal family member tortured a foreign national who had allegedly overcharged him in a grain deal.”
For the most part, the local press has ignored the controversy. Human Rights Watch suggested the reason for that is a UAE draft media law that would impose fines up to $1.3 million for anyone who "disparages" senior government personnel or royal family members.
The videotape surfaced as part of a U.S. federal lawsuit against Sheikh Issa brought by Texas businessman Bassem Nabulsi, a former business partner of the sheikh. The tape was recorded by Nabulsi’s brother, Nabulsi told ABC.
Sheikh Issa’s lawyer, Daryl Bristow of Houston, said in a statement that Nabulsi “and his lawyer are attempting to use a videotape of a third party (not Nabulsi) to influence the court and public opinion about a business dispute currently before a U.S. Federal Court in Texas.
“The public should know that ... Bassam Nabulsi kept the video from the media while his lawyer was asking for money," Bristow added. And “when all of the facts are known, the one-sided ‘story’ being told by Nabulsi and his lawyer will be completely addressed and Nabulsi will be discredited.”
One of Sheikh Issa’s businesses is real estate development. And in 2007, one of his companies, Pearl Properties, announced plans to construct a 61-story building named Al Hekma Tower.
It means “Wisdom Tower.”
More GlobalPost dispatches on Saudi Arabia:
Religious police feel the heat
Child marriage case showcases deep splits in Saudi society
Bringing poetry to reality TV