Dubai pardons woman at center of rape dispute

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A Norwegian woman at the center of a Dubai rape claim dispute said Monday that officials have dropped her 16-month sentence for having sex outside marriage and she is free to leave the country.

“I am very, very happy,” Marte Deborah Dalelv told The Associated Press. “I am overjoyed.”

The sentence against the 24-year-old Dalelv last week stirred widespread outrage in the West and highlighted the frequent clash between Dubai’s Western-friendly image and its Islamic-based legal codes.

Dalelv claimed she was raped in March by a co-worker, but was charged with having sex outside marriage after going to the police. Her decision to go public about the sentence last week in a series of interviews appeared to put pressure on authorities in Dubai and tarnish the city’s reputation as a cosmopolitan hub, including possible fallout on its high-profile bid for the 2020 World Expo.

“I have my passport back. I am pardoned,” said Dalelv, who worked for an interior design firm in Qatar and was in Dubai for a business meeting when the alleged rape took place.

There was no immediate word from Dubai officials, including whether the pardon was linked to traditions of clemency during the current Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

It also was unclear whether authorities would keep the 13-month sentence against Dalelv’s alleged attacker, identified as a 33-year-old Sudanese man who was charged with consuming alcohol and sex outside marriage. While liquor is widely available in Dubai hotels and restaurants, public intoxication can bring serious charges.

“I have my life back,” said Dalelv. “This is a great day.”

In Norway, Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide posted a Twitter message: “Marte is released! Thanks to everyone who signed up to help.”

Barth Eide told the Norwegian news agency NTB that international media attention and Norway’s diplomatic measures helped Dalelv, who was free on appeal with her next court hearing scheduled for early September. Norway also reminded the United Arab Emirates of obligations under U.N. accords to seriously investigate claims of violence against women.

“The United Arab Emirates and Dubai is a rapidly changing society. This decision won’t only affect Marte Dalelv, who can travel home now if she wishes to, but also serve as a wake-up call regarding the legal situation in many other countries,” Barth Eide was quoted as saying.

Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter: “Happy that Marte has been pardoned and that she is a free woman again.”

Dalelv said she planned to leave the UAE soon, but “first I have to thank some very special people,” including local groups that supported her. She had been staying at a Norwegian-linked aid center.

The AP does not identify the names of alleged sexual assault victims, but Dalelv went public voluntarily to talk to media.

In an interview with the AP last week, she recalled that she fled to the hotel lobby and asked for the police to be called after the alleged attack. The hotel staff asked if she was sure she wanted to involve the police, Dalelv said.

“Of course I want to call the police,” she said. “That is the natural reaction where I am from.”

She said she was held in custody for four days before being able to reach her stepfather in Norway.

Norway’s foreign minister said “very high level” Norwegian officials, including himself, had been in daily contact with counterparts in the United Arab Emirates since the verdict against Dalelv.

“We have made very clear what we think about this verdict and what we think about the fact that one is charged and sentenced when one starts out by reporting alleged abuse,” Barth Eide said.

In London, a rights group monitoring UAE affairs urged authorities to change laws to “ensure victims are protected, feel comfortable reporting crimes and are able to fairly pursue justice.”

“While we are pleased that Marte can now return home to Norway, her pardon still suggests that she was somehow guilty of a crime,” said Rori Donaghy, a spokesman for the Emirates Center for Human Rights. “Until laws are reformed, victims of sexual violence in the UAE will continue to suffer in this way and we will likely see more cases such as this one.”

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