Shrien Dewani on the first day of his trial at the Western Cape High Court. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Shrien Dewani is on trial for murder, not for his sexuality

The young British businessman is accused of orchestrating the 2010 murder of Anni, his wife of just two weeks, in a spectacular hijack committed in Cape Town’s township badlands.

High on the wall of the South African courtroom in which a British man is being tried for the murder of his wife hangs a relic of a previous era.

An ornately carved wooden crest, with a unicorn and a lion rampant, and beneath it that curious motto of the British establishment: “Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense” (roughly translated from Old French as “shame on those who think ill of it”).

That Britain’s royal coat of arms is still displayed in courtroom two of Cape Town’s High Court is most likely due to the debt of honour South Africa’s legal system owes its English progenitor.

But crest’s old-fashioned imprecation to trust in the righteousness of those who act on our behalf is one that, to my mind, could be as hopelessly out of date as the colonial attitudes which once subjugated this beautiful country.

For the past two weeks I have reported for various British media outlets on the opening skirmishes in the murder trial of Shrien Dewani.

Dewani, as some readers are likely aware, is the young British businessman accused of orchestrating the 2010 murder of Anni, his wife of just two weeks, in a spectacular hijack committed in the township badlands which fringe this stunning city by the sea.

To my mind, the most significant evidence we’ve heard in Dewani’s trial so far has been the witness testimony of a local gangster who – in return for a discount off his prison sentence and, perhaps, the prospect of more to come – claimed that Anni’s murder was her husband’s idea.

But beyond this there is one theme, above all others, that has dominated both court proceedings and the media’s coverage of it: Shrien Dewani’s sexuality.

Briefly, Shrien Dewani is bisexual.

“I have had sexual interactions with both males and females”, a statement read into court on Dewani’s behalf declared on the trial’s first day.

“I consider myself to be bisexual. My sexual interactions with males were mostly physical experiences or email chats with people I met online or in clubs; including prostitutes [...]

“My sexual experiences with females were usually during the course of a relationship which consisted of other activities and emotional attachment.”

Dewani’s admission prompted lurid headlines, both in South Africa and elsewhere.

The confession was interpreted by legal experts as a clever move designed to take the wind out of the prosecution’s sails by conceding as true that which they might claim Dewani denies – and also by challenging the court to disagree with the proposition that a person’s sexuality should have no bearing on his or her guilt.

But if Shrien Dewani had hoped sexuality might disappear as a theme in this trial, he will have been sorely disappointed.

On Monday this week, the trial heard from Simon Johnson, a perky young British man from the gay dating website Gaydar – a website, Johnson claimed in court, for which “privacy is of the utmost importance”.

The court didn’t hear whether Johnson had been compelled to give witness evidence or whether he volunteered to do so, but what he told the court might seem at odds with this claim to privacy.

Shrien Dewani, Johnson explained, had been a member of Gaydar for six years at the time of Anni’s death. His online nickname was “Asiansubguy”. He described himself as “a single gay man” and “passive sub guy” who was looking for a “dominant active guy”.

The court heard more detail about Dewani’s sexual predilections, much of it likely to be extremely embarrassing to him. But that, I think, is enough for now.

What on earth, I wondered as listened to Johnson’s patter, has any of this got to do with murder?

The Gaydar man had an answer. He confirmed that, according to the website’s records, Shrien Dewani logged into the site once on the day before Anni’s death and three times two days afterwards.

Okay. But what did he do online?

Unfortunately, that Johnson couldn’t say. This information was not retrievable from the site’s servers, he explained. But it was possible, he conceded under cross examination, that Shrien Dewani may simply have used Gaydar to send or receive innocuous emails.

Things got worse on Tuesday.

Mark Roberts, from Britain’s National Crime Agency, appeared in the witness dock to explain how he had, at the South African police’s request, searched a laptop computer once used by Shrien Dewani.

The computer’s large disc size meant Roberts hadn’t been able to sift through all the data it contained, so the IT expert used keywords to filter his search.

Roberts searched for the names of various people, places and websites which he thought might yield incriminating information.

He also searched for the words “gay, fetish, rubber and water sports”, he explained in court.

Just as I was wondering what forensic point Roberts and his South African taskmasters hoped to achieve using these search terms, prosecutor Adrian Mopp moved on to what was clearly meant as the meat of Roberts’ witness evidence: a cache of 53 sexually charged emails sent to Shrien Dewani from an unidentified “an older man” over a year before Anni’s murder.

There was a moment of breathless anticipation on the court’s press benches as we waited for these emails to be read into the court record.

But before they could be, Dewani’s barrister Francois van Zyl was on his feet, complaining that they were irrelevant to the case against his client.

Yes, they may be from one man to another man, van Zyl argued, but so what?

“Mr Dewani communicated with a third party about the situation in which he found himself”, prosecutor Adrian Mopp countered.

“He was confused about whether to get married or whether to come out....the man expressed a conflict within himself”.

“And what does that prove, motive to kill?” a clearly doubtful Judge Jeanette Traverso fired back. “I am sure that’s true for many, many people, including people in this court”.

The judge’s putdown was brutal, but Mopp wasn’t finished.

It wasn’t the fact that Shrien Dewani was gay that was important, the prosecution lawyer explained to the court, but that he had described himself, at different times, as being either gay, bisexual and straight. Which one was true?

Then came the kicker: a succinct explanation of the binary way in which Dewani’s prosecution appeared to me to understand the complex realities of human sexuality.

“A bisexual person is attracted to both sexes”, Mopp informed the court. “A gay person is attracted to one”.

Judge Traverso rejected the prosecution’s attempts to introduce the email evidence, ruling that the messages were of no relevance.

Having flown half way across the world to give his evidence, Roberts, the IT expert, was sent back home to the UK.

But the issue of Dewani’s sexuality is still unlikely to disappear from this trial. The court is expected, in the coming weeks, to hear from “The German Master”, a male prostitute Dewani has admitted paying for sex.

As for the relevance of what the Master has to say, that we shall have to see.

Shrien Dewani’s murder trial is still in its early stages and has yet to hear some of the most important evidence against him. He could be convicted of his wife’s murder, in which case concerns about his private life will, most likely, be the least of his worries.

But Shrien Dewani could be found innocent. If that happens he may have good reason to be angry, not just at the police and prosecution service that would have falsely accused him of a crime he didn’t commit, but for the needless airing of the most intimate details about his private life – secrets he will never now be able to hide.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

0800 7318496