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Festival Cancels Abu Dhabi Event After Allegations of Sexual Assault

LONDON — The Hay Festival, an annual staple of Britain’s literary calendar, announced on Monday that an offshoot event to promote freedom of speech and women’s empowerment would no longer be held in Abu Dhabi after one of its employees accused the United Arab Emirates’ minister of tolerance of sexual assault.

In an article published by The Sunday Times of London over the weekend, the employee, Caitlin McNamara, 32, said that the minister, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, who is also a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, assaulted her in February.

In a statement issued later on Sunday, the festival said it would not hold the Abu Dhabi event as long as Sheikh al-Nahyan remained in the position.

Caroline Michel, chair of the Hay Festival board, called the alleged attack “an appalling violation and a hideous abuse of trust and position.”

“Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan made a mockery of his ministerial responsibilities and tragically undermined his government’s attempt to work with Hay Festival to promote free speech and female empowerment,” she said in the statement.

Sheikh al-Nahyan has denied the accusations, in a statement issued through his lawyers at the Schillings law firm in London.

“Our client is surprised and saddened by this allegation, which arrives eight months after the alleged incident and via a national newspaper,” the law firm said. “The account is denied.”

The event, a collaboration between the U.A.E. Ministry of Tolerance and the Hay Festival, brought together internationally acclaimed authors and thinkers in Abu Dhabi over four days in February.

The festival organizers have defended their decision to go ahead with the 2020 event, even though the festival’s leadership was aware of Ms. McNamara’s allegations before hand.

Ms. McNamara, who was hired by the Hay Festival to organize its first event in the U.A.E., spent six months working from the Ministry of Tolerance, which was created as “a bridge of communication between peoples of different cultures in a respectful environment that rejects extremism and emphasis on the acceptance of the other,” according to a government website.

She said that Sheikh al-Nahyan invited her to a private dinner at an exclusive resort on Feb. 14, days before the festival, where he attacked her.

She reported the events to the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi shortly after the alleged assault, according to The Sunday Times, and she has since been interviewed by Scotland Yard in Britain. The newspaper reported that Ms. McNamara was waiting to hear whether legal action can be taken against Sheikh al-Nahyan in Britain.

She told the news outlet she had gone public with the story because she wanted to see him held accountable and because of the “massive mental and physical toll” the attack had taken on her.

“I feel I have nothing to lose,” she said. “ I want to do this because I want to highlight the effect of powerful men like him doing things like that and thinking they can get away with it. It seemed clear from the set up I was not the first or last.”

Attempts to reach Ms. McNamara were not immediately successful. The festival has grown from its roots as a literary gathering in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, to hosting several international gatherings. The event in February was its first in Abu Dhabi.

But even before the sexual assault accusations, it had drawn controversy. Dozens of rights groups and prominent writers issued an open letter to festival organizers before it started, denouncing the United Arab Emirates’ rights record and calling for freedom of speech to be upheld.

The event, billed as a platform for freedom of expression, seemed directly at odds with the country’s arbitrary detention of government critics and jailing of those who voice dissent, the critics said,

The letter called the festival an opportunity for the country “to back up its promise of tolerance with actions that include the courageous contributors to freedom of expression who live in the country.”

The United Arab Emirates has long been criticized for its suppression of political dissent, and limited protections for women under the leadership of the de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

“Despite declaring 2019 the ‘Year of Tolerance,’ United Arab Emirates rulers showed no tolerance for any manner of peaceful dissent,” the international monitoring group Human Rights Watch wrote in its annual world report assessing the rights situation in countries around the world.

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