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Dubai pardons Norwegian woman charged with illicit sex after rape claim

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - With her passport back in hand, a Norwegian woman at the centre of a Dubai rape claim dispute said Monday that officials dropped her 16-month sentence for having sex outside marriage in the latest clash between the city's Islamic-based legal codes and its international branding as a Western-friendly haven.

Dubai authorities hope the pardon of the 24-year-old woman will allow them to sidestep another potentially embarrassing blow to the city's heavily promoted image as a forward-looking model of luxury, excess and cross-cultural understanding.

"I am very, very happy," Marte Deborah Dalelv told The Associated Press after she was cleared by the order of Dubai's ruler. "I am overjoyed."

But the case points to wider issues embedded in the rapid rise of Gulf centres such as Dubai and Qatar's capital of Doha, host for the 2022 World Cup. These cities' cosmopolitan ambitions often find themselves at odds with the tug of traditional views on sex and alcohol.

Both alcohol consumption without a proper license and sex outside marriage are outlawed, but the rules are difficult to enforce and generally only become an issue if authorities are alerted. Most foreign residents and visitors coast through Dubai's tolerant lifestyle. Women in full Islamic coverings shop alongside others in miniskirts, and liquor flows at resorts and restaurants. Yet once authorities determine a legal line has been crossed, it's often difficult and bewildering for the suspects.

Nowhere in the region are the two sides more in potential conflict than Dubai, where the expatriate workforce outnumbers locals 5-to-1 and millions of tourists arrive each year with high-end fun on their minds.

Dalelv, in Dubai for a business meeting, said she told police in March that she was raped by a co-worker after a night that included cocktails. She was held in custody for four days and sentenced last week for illicit sex outside marriage and alcohol consumption.

The alleged attacker, identified as a 33-year-old Sudanese man, was charged with the same offences and received a 13-month sentence. He also cleared by a pardon, according to Dalelv.

Rape prosecutions are complicated in the United Arab Emirates because — as in some other countries influenced by Islamic law — conviction requires either a confession or the testimony of adult male witnesses.

In a twist that often shocks Western observers, allegations of rape can boomerang into illegal sex charges for the accuser. In 2008, an Australian woman said she was jailed for eight months after claiming she was gang-raped at a UAE hotel.

The fears of sex-outside-marriage charges also lead some single domestic workers in the UAE to abandon their babies or seek back-room abortions.

Other, less serious, cases have also shed light on the tensions in Dubai between cosmopolitan modernity and Muslim legal codes and tribal traditions. In 2009, a British couple was sentenced to one month each in prison after an Emirati woman claimed they engaged in an overly passionate kiss. Motorists have been convicted for a rude gesture in a moment of road rage.

"I have my passport back. I am pardoned," said Dalelv, who worked for an interior design firm in Qatar. "I am free."

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.

"I have my life back," added Dalelv. "This is a great day."

Her mother, Evelyn Dalelv, told the AP from Norway she is "incredibly happy" at the outcome, but thinks her daughter would consider returning to the Middle East after further study in interior design.

"Luckily, she is going back to study in Oslo in the autumn," she said.

A statement Saturday from Dalelv's Qatar-based employer, Al Mana Interiors, said she was dismissed from her job after she "ceased communications" with the company following the alleged rape. But Thomas Lundgren, owner of The ONE, the Dubai-based company that franchises Al Mana, was quoted Monday by Arabianbusiness.com as saying that the firing was "a mistake" and said she can return if she wants.

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 wanted "to thank some very special people," including local groups that supported her. She had been staying at a Norwegian-linked aid centre.

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."

Norway's foreign minister said he and other "very high level" Norwegian officials 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."

___

Associated Press writer Malin Rising in Stockholm contributed to this report.

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