In a case that generated tabloid headlines and became the focus of a clash between Western permissiveness and Islamic values, a Dubai court Thursday found a British couple guilty of unmarried sex and sentenced them to three months in prison.
Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer, who had been accused of being drunk and having sex on the beach, were each sentenced to serve time, fined $272 for drinking alcohol in public and ordered to be deported immediately upon leaving prison. The pair were charged with having unmarried sex after a taxi picked them up from a champagne brunch at a five-star hotel and drove them to Jumeirah Beach in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates’ most culturally tolerant emirate.
“This verdict does not make sense,” Hassan Mattar, the couple’s lawyer told reporters after the verdicts. “I’m going to appeal it.”
Prosecutor Faisal Abdelmalek Ahil said he expected a harsher sentence. “I’m not happy,” he said. “It’s very light. It’s normal for a sentence to be six months to a year for an offense such as this.”
Acors, 34, and Palmer, 36, who was fired from her job as a publishing executive after her arrest, were not in court when the verdict was handed down. Palmer had said she and Acors were only kissing and hugging, and that a medical report showed they did not have sex.
Mattar argued that testimony from witnesses, including a police officer who said he saw them having sex on a lounger, was false.
It wasn’t clear whether the verdict was for the sex offense or the lesser indecency charge.
The case, which grew out of a July 5 incident, quickly became a morality tale set amid globalization and Dubai’s skyline of glittering high-rises. The emirate is a financial hub in the Middle East, catering to tourists and multibillion-dollar business deals. It is also an Islamic state straining to balance Western influence and wealth with religious traditions that forbid alcohol, unmarried sex and homosexuality.
Police often look the other way when it comes to gambling, prostitution and frolics in the surf. But Muslim conservatives have been warning that Dubai’s openness to global markets and its quest to build the world’s tallest skyscrapers and sponsor expensive horse races are corrupting society. This accusation is especially sensitive given foreigners, a mix of Western professionals and Asian laborers, are 85% of the UAE’s population of 5.6 million.
The media in Britain in part portrayed the case as another disturbing sign that abuse of alcohol was a too-common problem among Britons abroad. The BBC reported that the verdict shows that “tourists are ignoring the emirate’s strict Islamic laws and that the outcome of this case will be a warning that such drunken behavior will not be tolerated in public.”