Jailed British mother fights for children in Dubai

26th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Although famed worldwide as a popular destination for Western tourists and foreign workers thanks to its plush lifestyle and relative tolerance, Dubai still seeks to preserve certain Islamic traditions through tough rulings.

Dubai -- A British mother of two jailed for adultery in Dubai and stripped of custody of her sons with her Egyptian ex-husband is fighting deportation to stay close to her children.

Marnie Pearce, 40, has been serving a three-month jail sentence since late February in the Muslim Gulf emirate, which is home to a large community of non-Muslim expatriates.

Although famed worldwide as a popular destination for Western tourists and foreign workers thanks to its plush lifestyle and relative tolerance, Dubai still seeks to preserve certain Islamic traditions through tough rulings.

Amnesty International described Pearce as a "prisoner of conscience," saying someone's private sex life should not lead to prison.

"Her deportation should be stopped to allow her time to solve issues about her children," a friend of Pearce who is a member of a support group named "Team Marnie" told AFP.

A petition demanding her immediate release and the lifting of the deportation order to enable her to have contact with her children will be handed to the UAE embassy in London on Thursday, the friend said, requesting anonymity.

The petition was launched online on March 25, a week after Dubai's highest court upheld her jail sentence and subsequent deportation after she was convicted of cheating on her husband.

The same day, a Dubai family court, which applies Islamic Sharia law, ordered the divorce and stripped Pearce of all custody rights over her sons Laith, seven, and Ziad, four.

"We... ask that in the best interests of the children that the deportation order be lifted, to enable the children to have continued contact with their mother," said the petition, signed so far by 4,700 people.

Under Islamic law, a Muslim mother may be given custody of daughters under the age of nine and sons under seven, after which custody goes to the father.

But mothers can lose such rights if they are deemed incompetent to raise children, according to a legal website offering advice on international custody rights.

It is not clear if Pearce converted to Islam after her marriage.

The couple tied the knot in the Seychelles in 1999 after they met in Oman, where she worked as a florist. She told Britain's Daily Mail in her first interview from behind bars, published on April 11, that they were never married in an Islamic court.

She recounted how she stood in the dock to hear that she was being divorced according to Sharia law.

"He had brought two men to swear that we'd had a religious marriage," she told a British tabloid. "It was a lie. The documents were false. I tried to speak out but no one was listening. I had no lawyer."

UAE lawyer Samira Gargash, who defended Pearce in the criminal court, apparently did not know Pearce was being brought to the family court, said Pearce's friend.

Gargash was not reachable for comment. "We are not commenting on the case of Marnie Pearce," a clerk at her office told AFP.

Pearce has denied committing adultery. She told the British press she had thrown her husband out of their villa after discovering he was having an affair and claimed he had framed her to win custody of the children.

But in March 2008, her husband stormed the villa along with a police patrol while she was there with her alleged British lover. She insisted they were only having a cup of tea and that they never had sex.

According to legal documents seen by AFP, she was found guilty in November based on her March arrest with her alleged lover "in her husband's house," email correspondence between her and the man, described as "a fugitive from justice" and testimony from the live-in maid.

Five used condoms, two of which had Pearce's DNA but not her husband's semen, were also seized after being found by the maid, who kept them in a freezer on the instructions of the husband, the documents said.

Pearce's friend said, however, that the husband handed the condoms to the police only 11 weeks after the raid, which ended with the release of Pearce and her alleged lover after four hours of questioning.

The unnamed man was not tested for DNA, she said, claiming also that Pearce believed the emails were tampered with by the husband.

Amnesty said that even if Pearce was involved in a sexual relationship out of wedlock, she should not face criminal punishment.

"The legal provisions that provide for imprisonment over sexual activities are in our view flawed... and create a prisoner of conscience," Amnesty researcher Drewery Dyke told AFP.

"In many jurisdictions, this is not criminalised and dealt with in civil courts," he said. "It is becoming increasingly incompatible (with human rights standards) to have laws that criminalise consensual sex."

Dyke said priority should be given to serving the interests of the children, according to an international convention on child rights, which the UAE became party to in 1997 with some reservations.

The convention stresses the right of a child "to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child," according to its text.

An online video showed the two tearful boys clinging to their mother as she handed them over to their father outside a Dubai court the day she turned herself in two months ago. She collapsed on the tarmac as he drove away.

The British Foreign Office said Pearce may appeal the custody judgement.

"We've been working hard in Marnie's case, both through repeated representation to the UAE authorities and consular assistance to Marnie and with her family," it said in an email to AFP.

Pearce's friend said the British embassy had sent a letter to the Dubai attorney general asking for the deportation ruling to be lifted.

Pearce, who apparently secured a divorce in February from a British court, according to her friend, is set to fight for her young boys.

"Oh, yes! When she goes back to the UK, she'll continue to fight... His custody rights will cover him (the father) only in Muslim countries," her friend said.


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