Dubai -- with its world-famous luxury hotels and what will soon be the world's tallest building -- is the Arab world's most modern oasis. But beyond the sandy beaches and tourist attractions, the western dress and the bustling buildings, Dubai is struggling to modernize one aspect of its conservative Muslim culture: the taboos and treatment of sexual violence.
16-year-old French-Swiss Alexandre Robert and his mother Veronique were the perfect example of Dubai's cosmopolitan makeup. Alex was living in Dubai when he says he was gang raped at knifepoint, beginning an ordeal that has shed light on how Dubai's justice system treats victims of violent sex crimes.
Today, two men were sentenced in a Dubai court to 15 years each in prison in the case. Their names and the details of their convictions were not released by the court.
"Before, I felt like it was paradise, it was honestly paradise," Alex told ABC News last month. "Today I feel like they lied to me, they treated me like nothing, like a toy. And they played with my life and I don't know, they…they destroyed me."
What happened to Alex has thrown a worldwide spotlight on the dark side of a city where a victim can be treated as a criminal, where homosexuality is outlawed and where AIDS is buried under a layer of shame.
"Homosexuality is taboo, rape is taboo, and AIDS is taboo," said Veronique Robert.
Saturday July 14th of this year was just another summer day in paradise. Then 15-year-old Alex spent the day at the beach with his friend. When it was time to go home, a local teenager they barely knew offered to give them a lift when they couldn't find a cab. He called two older friends who had a car.
Alex and his friend accepted the ride and got in the car. Alex says the man behind the wheel drove past the turnoff to his house, beyond Dubai's landmark Mall of the Emirates, and into a desolate stretch of desert.
"So we keep driving and I see him taking an exit to go in the desert and I told him 'Where are you going?' And this is where I started to think and realize that something was wrong, you know, and they told me to shut up," Alex recalled.
First Alex says the driver secured the child locks on the doors, trapping the boys inside. Then they stopped along a desert road on the outskirts of the city.
"They asked my friend to get out of the car, he said no, so they pulled him out with violence and they started hitting, hitting him and they hit me. And after that -- I'm sorry…" Alex said, unable to continue.
"Alex started to scream," his friend told ABC News, adding that Alex tried to grab his hand. The friend spoke about the attack on the condition that his name be kept secret because he still lives in Dubai and fears retaliation.
"I was very afraid," said the friend. "I thought they wanted to kill me, me and Alex. So it was like the last minute of my life I was living."
Desperate for help, Alex says he tried to call 999 -- Dubai's version of 911 -- on his cell phone.
The local teen who brought them to the car overheard the police respond to the call, Alex says, and grabbed for the phone.
"I had the phone in my hands, I was screaming and shouting for help," said Alex. "He took my phone and he was hitting me. I started screaming and crying."
'I'm Gonna Kill You'
"He was saying, 'I'm gonna kill you, your mother, father. I know where you live. Don't do that any more,'" recalled his friend.
"He said to me right in the eyes, right in the eyes that if I, if I speak about this one day, he knows where I live, he'll go to my house, he'll burn my house, he'll kill my parents, he'll f*** them and he'll burn them," Alex said. "And it was hard."
"They will not touch us. Don't worry about that, it's done," said Veronique. "They will pay for that, they will pay for that."
As dusk settled in the desert, the friend says he was forced to walk behind a sand dune, where he couldn't see or hear anything. That's when Alex says the 36-year-old driver threatened his life.
"He took out a pool stick and a hunting knife. He told me that he wanted to f*** me and I told him no way, I told him this, you can forget about it. I won't let you touch me, I won't let you. And after this, I had no choice."
When he finished, the teenager who had first offered them the ride came back to the car, Alex says. "I told them, 'Listen, if you're going to kill us, just let me use my phone, just give me back my phone and let me, let me call my family, I won't tell them where I am, I'll talk in English, I won't tell them what's happening, but just…if you're going to kill me, just let me call them, tell them that I love them or something, just let me do this," said Alex." And they keep telling us to shut up."
In the end their salvation may have turned on something as simple as sand. Alex says the attackers' car got stuck and they had to call a relative, who drove to the scene.
"I got my head up and I saw this plate number…I still remember it today," said Alex. "And I think this, this plate saved my life."
'Homosexuality Is An Illegal Act'
Instead of killing them, Alex says their attackers brought them to one of Dubai's luxurious hotels, where they were thrown out of the car.
"They pushed us like, like we were nothing, you know, like if we were bags," he said.
Alex says he felt dizzy and passed out. He had survived a violent rape that could happen anywhere in the world, but the legal nightmare ahead would turn out to be a second tragedy, he says.
After the attackers left them on the curb Alex and his friend went to the first safe place they could think of. They took a taxi to a local shopping mall, hid in the bathroom, and called for help.
They immediately reported the crime, going in person to the local police station. But Alex says the police doctor who examined him that night seemed intent on proving there was no rape, just a consensual sexual act between three men and a 15 year-old gay boy.
"He told me, admit it, you are a homosexual and everything," said Alex. "I got really angry, I told him, 'Listen, I just got raped by three guys.'"
And perhaps more damaging to Alex's case, the doctor asserts the examination "showed a history" of homosexual activity, according to the doctor's report obtained by ABC News and translated from the original Arabic.
"In their minds if I admit that I am a homosexual, the crime would be over, everything would be over," Alex believed.
Moreover, Veronique Robert says police and local authorities failed to tell Alex that one of the men was HIV positive for weeks after they learned of it.
Alex has so far tested negative for the AIDS virus. However, he can't know for sure until January, since the virus needs six months for definitive test results.
"I have to wait until January, and in January I'll know, so I cross fingers and I hope," he said.
Veronique Robert says the Dubai authorities twice assured there was no threat of sexually transmitted disease, even though there was a report identifying one of the attackers as being HIV positive in government files for years.
"I'm so furious, I cannot tell you how I'm furious, you know, and I said why they lie, they just play with the life of Alex," said Veronique Robert.
The Case Against Alex
Homosexuality is against the law in the UAE, where anyone found guilty of sodomy faces years in jail.
The Dubai government denies that the doctor accused Alex of being gay or that he was ever at risk of being charged with homosexuality. But Robert Jongeryck, the French consul, was so worried a case was being built against Alex as an illegal homosexual he advised the boy and his mother to flee Dubai before he was arrested.
"I think that if we had not reacted and asked the authorities to do something, probably Alexandre would have been charged," said Jongeryck.
A Victorian Value System?
Arab-American psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Hamden works in the Dubai courts and says it's important for foreigners to remember that while everything looks modern there, it is a young, developing city.
"It's no different than were we in America were a hundred years ago, right after or during the end of the Victorian era," said Hamden. "Even though we are seeing globalization, in the city that has defined globalization, were still seeing a value system that still looks like new Victorians."
Dr. Habib al-Mulla, an attorney and government spokesman, defends the social conservatism that makes homosexuality a crime in Dubai.
"Every country and every culture has…its own values, its own morals, and the laws and legislations reflect the way every society looks at those morals," Al-Mulla said.
"This is a conservative society. Homosexuality, conducted homosexuality is an illegal act. And we are not ashamed of that."
"So, when you invite people to come [to Dubai], are you inviting everyone but homosexuals?" ABC News' Jim Avila asked the spokesman.
"Everyone is more than welcomed to come," said al-Mulla. "However, no one is welcome to commit any illegal activity."
In an environment where homosexuality is a crime, can a victim of "forcible homosexuality," as the law calls it, be treated fairly under the law?
The trial is big news in Dubai. The two adult defendants, both of whom faced the death penalty, have denied all charges. Veronique Robert says she was in juvenile court -- closed to the press -- when the local boy who first led Alex and his friend into the car pled guilty to charges of kidnapping, threatening, and rape. Because he is a minor he does not face execution.
"I'm sure the court will deal with this [verdict] in a fair and reasonable manner," said government spokesman Al-Mulla, leaving open the possibility that what happened to Alex would lead to some reforms in the handling of rape cases.
"We will look into the system, we'll see if there was anything deficient. And if we believe that there is any room for…improvement in that system of course we'll do that."
Armed with the promise that he would not be prosecuted, Alex returned to Dubai to testify against his alleged attackers, a moment he will never forget.
"You could read it in their eyes, they were saying like, if we go out, if we find you, my God, poor kid, run for your life, run for your life, if we get you, you're dead," he said.
Veronique Robert relentlessly warns anyone who will listen not to go to Dubai expecting a world-class justice system. She has even created a Web site called www.boycottdubai.com designed to hit the emirate where it hurts -- in the carefully cultivated image put forth to tourists and visitors.
"A part of me is really sad," she said. "I was loving Dubai, I was loving to come here to visit my child, [to] go to the beach with Alex…seven years of my life…it's gone. I think I will not come here…I will never see Dubai with the same eyes."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.