A 56-year-old Indian man is facing the death penalty in Abu Dhabi for a crime he says he did not commit. Abandoned by his Embassy and former colleagues, Ezhur Gangadharan is in a desperate place. On 11 November he will appeal his conviction and his only hope is that support from the international community will pressure authorities into reviewing his case.
Ezhur Gangadharan, known as 'Babu' to his friends, has worked as a caretaker at the Al Rabeeh school in Abu Dhabi for 32 years. His brother, Haridas, describes him as a "very gentle, quiet and innocent guy" who is well known among the Indian community for his voluntary work at a local social care centre.
In June Babu was arrested and accused of raping a seven-year-old girl at the Al Rabeeh school, something that he strenuously denies. In police custody he claims to have been beaten and told that if he admitted to the charges against him then he would be released. For three days he was denied food and water, forcing him to drink from the toilet in his prison cell.
In court Babu was convicted of rape on the basis of his confession, which he says was given under torture. There was no forensic evidence presented and the prosecution's version of events was inconsistently given, raising doubts about its credibility. During trial sessions held in Arabic, Babu, who speaks Malayalam, was incorrectly provided with a Hindi translator. When Babu tried to tell the court that he had been tortured the translator failed to communicate this to the judge.
Claims of torture and an unfair legal process are backed up by a litany of similar allegations made in unconnected cases. A recent survey of prisoners at Dubai Central Prison showed that 75% claimed to have been physically abused, with one participant saying "the police pointed his gun at me and said that he would shoot me if I don't tell I sell drugs [sic]".
These are not isolated cases. Many others claim to have been tortured by police in the UAE: Three Britons held in Dubai, a group of Emirati political dissidents, two Syrian nationals and a number of Egyptians all say they have been tortured in the past year alone. The legal process has also been called into question after the International Commission of Jurists released a report describing a trial of political dissidents as "manifestly unfair".
These claims add weight to the allegations made by Babu and give clear grounds to believe that he may have been tortured in police custody. Given that this man is facing the death penalty, it is clear that there is an urgent need for the case to be independently reviewed in order to establish the facts.
This case raises another issue, however, which is that of how migrant workers are treated in the UAE. Babu is one of 1.75 million Indians working in the country, making up 30% of the overall population. Employment sponsorship, known as the kefala system, exploits workers coming from poor socio-economic backgrounds rendering them little more than slave labour.
Migrant workers are a disposable commodity and are wholly disrespected by society. A recent case highlighted this, when an Indian man was arrested for posting a video to YouTube that showed an Emirati government official beating up an Indian bus driver. Although the case was eventually dropped, the Indian man who filmed the violent crime faced a longer prison sentence than the government official guilty of beating up a bus driver.
Babu is just another disposable economic migrant who is there to work hard and send money home to his family in India. The Indian Embassy, keen to maintain ties that bring significant economic benefit to their country, has said that they have "complete faith in the local judicial system". At the school, which employees a large number of Western expatriates, employees are said to be too scared to speak out due to a fear of losing their jobs.
Alone, with no support, Babu has lost everything. On Monday he will appeal his conviction in Abu Dhabi. If justice is to be served the judge must order an investigation into claims of torture and review the whole trial process. The only hope for Babu is that his case can gain some international exposure to pressure authorities into respecting his right to a fair hearing. A petition has been set up calling for his release and a protest is planned to take place at the UAE Embassy in London on Monday, November 11th, at 2.30pm. It is a case where individual actions could lead to saving a life: Babu does not deserve to die for a conviction that is shrouded in claims of torture and an unfair trial.