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American woman jailed for 'insulting' United Arab Emirates

An American woman is on trial in the United Arab Emirates for 'insulting the country and its leaders through verbal assault' after an incident in February. 

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    A new concourse in the Dubai airport increases the total passenger capacity of the airport from 75 million to 90 million, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. An American woman waiting for a taxi at the airport was jailed after refusing help from two men.
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An American woman is being held by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for allegedly insulting the country and its leaders.

The unnamed woman, who has been held in jail by the Middle Eastern country since Feb. 23, was waiting for a taxi at the airport when she allegedly insulted the UAE or its leaders, according UAE's government-owned publication The National.

The American was standing at a curb when she was approached by two men who offered to help her.

"The men tried to help me. I had another flight to catch at 1.29am," the American woman told The National. "I refused to engage with them and nothing happened."

The National states that the two men did not "like the way she spoke to them." The woman is now being charged with "insulting the country and its leaders through verbal assault," the English-language daily reported.

A verdict is expected on May 2, but few other details have been released. 

"There has to be more to this story," Dr. Betty Anderson, an associate professor of Middle Eastern history at Boston University, told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "This is an unusual situation."

Yet defamation laws are hardly unusual in the region – or around the world. What differs, free speech experts say, is whether they target speech against private citizens or the government itself, and whether cases are handled as civil or criminal matters. 

"EU member states fall short of meeting international standards in numerous key ways," a January 2015 report on press freedom from the International Press Institute found, citing problems such as excessive litigation costs and better protection for government officials than private citizens. Countries such as Portugal, Estonia, Austria, and Germany all have laws protecting some form of national symbolism, including the flag or national crest, from attack.

When free speech is a crime

In the Middle East, however, defamation "is a common criminal code, where the government squashes the free speech rights of citizens," Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Texas A&M University, tells the Monitor in a phone interview.  

Global watchdog Freedom House ranks the UAE as "not free," along with its neighbors Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar. 

Article 19, a British human rights organization that focuses on freedom of expression worldwide, told the Monitor that the UAE has not signed on to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which sets free speech standards under defamation laws.

"International standards make it very clear that defamation claims should protect reputations of individuals, and should not shield States or public authorities from 'insults,' " Pierre-François Docquir, a senior legal officer at Article 19, tells the Monitor in an e-mail. "Laws that protect 'the State' as such from criticism violate international human rights protections for freedom of expression."

How countries 'defamation laws' differ

Middle Eastern experts say that defamation laws in the region are increasingly being used to crack down on dissent, far more than under European or American defamation laws. 

"The big distinction between countries that do this and the US is that, for the most part (although not entirely), our criminal defamation laws have either been repealed or are rarely enforced," University of Minnesota professor Jane Kirtley, a media law expert, tells the Monitor in an e-mail interview. Insulting the state was once a crime in the US under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which expired in the early 19th century. 

Adrian Shahbaz, a Middle East and North African research expert at Freedom House, says that there has been a trend of arrests based on "insults against the state" in Middle Eastern countries. The tactic is "emblematic of how the government in [authoritarian countries] is trying to ensure control over the public narrative," he said. 

Some defamation laws are understandable and practical, even in countries that embrace free speech, according to Mr. Shahbaz. But he says that countries that do have defamation laws should be very careful that they are also promoting greater debate and freedom of speech.

Perhaps the biggest difference between more liberal defamation laws and laws that can be manipulated by authoritarian regimes is the way they are characterized by a country's legal code: Defamation cases should be civil, not criminal, according to Shahbaz.

Cultural differences, lost in translation

February's arrest was not the first of its kind in the UAE. Last summer, an Australian woman was deported from the UAE after she posted a photograph of a car parked over two disabled parking spaces.

In early 2014, an American citizen was released after nine months in a UAE jail for posting a parody video that poked fun at 1990s teenager styles in Dubai

The National reports that this most recent case is being treated as a misdemeanor, and as such, "a lawyer is not required." The woman has been in jail for 39 days so far.

The US Embassy in Abu Dhabi has stated that it is aware of the case and providing services to the woman in question, but has not released any more information.

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