Middle East


We'll turn now to a torture video that's having a much bigger impact internationally. It shows a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates brutalizing an Afghan man. The video was screened at a congressional hearing earlier this month, and it sparked opposition to an agreement between the UAE and the Obama administration to develop nuclear energy.

While the case has provoked outrage here in the U.S., it's been barely reported in the UAE's tightly controlled media. Kelly McEvers has the story from Abu Dhabi. And a note to listeners, especially parents, you'll hear some graphic sounds and descriptions of torture.

KELLY McEVERS: The story was first made public in April.

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Unidentified Man #1: The videos produced by the UAE Tourism Authority tell of a simple desert people.

McEVERS: ABC broke the news once the UAE government confirmed that the man in question was in fact a member of the royal family.

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Unidentified Man #1: But this video smuggled out of the UAE tells a much different story about the royal family.

McEVERS: His name is Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, and he's a brother of the UAE president. In the video, the robed Sheikh Issa is seen stuffing sand into the mouth of former business partner Mohammed Shah Poor, a grain dealer from Afghanistan. Sheikh Issa then shoots a gun into the sand near Shah Poor's feet, beats him with a wooden plank studded with a nail, sodomizes Shah Poor with a cattle prod, pours salt into Shah Poor's wounds, and finally runs over Shah Poor with an SUV.

The Sheikh administers the torture with the help of a uniformed man who could be either a private security guard or a police officer. Shah Poor survived the attack, but spent months in the hospital.

At first, the UAE government said Sheikh Issa and Shah Poor had settled the matter privately, and there was no reason to investigate. But then, pressure mounted from human rights groups and the U.S. Congress. The UAE government responded by announcing it would reopen the case. At that point, exactly one story about Sheikh Issa appeared in the local media. That story ran in the National, a popular English language newspaper.

I'm standing outside the National office. Since publishing that one story about Sheikh Issa, the paper has mentioned the case only one more time, the final paragraph in a story about the U.S.-UAE nuclear deal. That's despite the fact that the government recently announced that Sheikh Issa has been put under house arrest. The editor-in-chief of the paper has declined several requests for comments, and many people close to the case say the National was specifically told not to write about it.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the National is pretty good at holding other regional governments to account, just not its own.

Ms. SARAH LEAH WHITSON (Middle East Director, Human Rights Watch): You know, the bottom line is it's a government-funded paper, and while there is some great talent at the National, I think that they are operating as a local paper, and they're subject to the same local restrictions.

McEVERS: Criticism of the government here can lead to hefty fines and, technically, jail time, although that part of the existing press law hasn't been enforced in recent years.

Foreign journalists have been briefly detained for stories that offended the government; some had their tapes confiscated. Local journalists have it even worse. Reporter Ashraf Helmi(ph) spoke at a recent media conference. He says editors simply refuse to publish critical stories.

Mr. ASHRAF HELMI (Reporter): We are dying to write these stories. We want to write these stories, but the fact is we are blocked at every turn.

McEVERS: The UAE government has drafted a new media law. It's awaiting final signature by the president. The law would forbid jail time for journalists, but still would impose huge fines for knowingly writing false stories that damage the economy or insulting top members of the royal family.

Ibrahim Al Abed, director general of the National Media Council, says the new law has been unfairly criticized in the West.

Mr. IBRAHIM AL ABED (Director-general, National Media Council): The people who protested were the people like, I'm sorry, like you who has come here for one year or half a year. So, they don't understand the culture. If you are part of the culture, you feel this is nothing. It's something taken for granted. Nobody will ridicule the president or the (unintelligible) or the ruling family.

McEVERS: This clash of cultures seems to underlie the whole debate about press freedom and the Sheikh Issa case. On the one hand, the UAE feels like it's being picked on. Critics say it's simply been too slow to react to such a shocking case.

Congressional opponents of the U.S.-UAE nuclear deal likely don't have the votes to block, but some members say they'll question whether a country that allows for such an abuse of power would be able to safeguard sensitive nuclear technologies.

For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Abu Dhabi.

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