Doctor’s detention puts UAE justice in the spotlight

Dr Cyril Karabus is being held in the hospital wing of the Al Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi.

There are ongoing calls for the release of a frail 77 year-old South African doctor following his arrest and imprisonment in Abu Dhabi on August 18 for a crime he had been convicted of – without his knowledge – over ten years ago.

Dr Cyril Karabus, a respected paediatrician who rose to fame in Apartheid South Africa, is receiving increasing support from former patients and members of the public as an online petition for his release approaches 11,000 signatures. The British Medical Journal has also emerged as one of the leading voices protesting Dr Karabus’ detention.

According to an online statement  from the UAE Judicial Department, Dr Karabus was convicted of the manslaughter of a three year-old girl with leukaemia who he treated while working in the country in 2002. He was tried in absentia in 2004.

Dr Karabus, who was unaware of the conviction or any case against him, was arrested as he transited through the Emirates on a holiday flight in August. He now faces a retrial and was last seen ‘hunched’ and ‘shacked’ in an Abu Dhabi courtroom. His supporters claim he is being denied proper access to legal documents to assist his case.

The paediatrician’s arrest and detention is placing the UAE’s widely-criticised judicial system under the spotlight.

‘I would say the case is symptomatic of a judicial system which is not particularly effective in delivering justice,’ Nick McGeehan from Human Rights Watch told The Bureau.

According to Dr Karabus’ lawyer, the re-trial is marred by procedural and administrative failures, including the loss of evidence files and the inability of the local authorities to contact the family of the deceased girl.

The UAE’s wealth and significant economic clout belies its widely-criticised human rights record. Although the UAE is attempting to establish itself as an a global health centre, widely-feared laws that allow UAE citizens to initiate criminal action against expatriates, including doctors and nurses, are a main cause ‘discouraging healthcare professionals from practicing in the country,’ according to a 2011 Deloitte report.

Patients made 108 allegations of medical negligence or malpractice in 2011, an increase from the previous year, according to UAE newspaper The National. In a recent 2011 high-profile criminal case, an Austrian and an Indian doctor were charged with murder in 2011.

US Congress research notes: ‘the UAE justice system has often come under criticism when expatriates are involved. Many reports indicated that arrests of expatriates and non-citizens increased during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, possibly out of citizen frustration that globalization and dramatic economic expansion have led to bursting of the economic ‘bubble’ in UAE.’

Dr Karabus’s next hearing is set for 11 October.