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By Shezanne Cassim 21 Oct, 2017

Reports of travelers being locked up while on holiday in—or simply passing through—the UAE continue to regularly make news. Because the UAE has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a modern business and tourist destination, this continuous news drip makes local officials and lawyers defensive. Instead of fixing the problem, they have decided to explain that this isn’t the UAE’s fault. In at least one recent news  article  published by state-controlled media, officials have claimed that the real problem is that travelers are jailed because they don’t know the country’s laws.

But this spate of arbitrary detentions has nothing to do with travelers who don’t have a handbook of UAE laws. The problem is that, first, the UAE’s laws are unclear and unpredictably enforced and, second, people can be detained without warning for some harmless act and then be denied the right to defend themselves.

The case of Jamie Harron illustrates this point to a farcical degree. While on a two-day stopover in Dubai this July, Harron, 27, from Scotland, visited a bar. According to Harron, he touched a man’s hip while preventing a drink from spilling. That man took offense and called the police. Harron was detained and charged with drinking alcohol and “public indecency” solely on the basis of the man’s complaint. Harron, who was granted bail after five days in jail, has lost his job and has racked up over £30,000 ($40,000) in legal bills. The judge handed him a  30-day jail sentence  for the charge of drinking alcohol. He’s now waiting for a judgment on the “public indecency” charge on October 22.

Here’s the problem: it wouldn’t have mattered if Harron knew the law because the UAE's alcohol laws are not consistently enforced. Though Dubai markets itself as a great place to drink, and thousands of tourists do so in the city’s many bars,  it’s illegal for tourists to consume alcohol . The catcher is that the law is only enforced some of the time, and there’s no telling when or who will be targeted.

Knowing the law wouldn’t have helped Harron avoid a charge of “public indecency” for touching the man’s hip, either. The vagueness of UAE laws means that anyone can find any action “offensive” and have you detained just by complaining to the police. Recently, individuals have been prosecuted for a  handshake , posting a picture of a fox on Facebook, or taking  pictures of a local racetrack  or even just taking  pictures of the sunset . In the UAE, someone could find the way you walk, the way you breathe, or the way you laugh “offensive” and have you locked up with just his word against yours.

Once detained, you will be unable defend yourself because there’s no due process. Police and prosecutors are free to fabricate evidence against you, and you can be denied access to an attorney (who can’t do much to help you anyway) while judges go along with it all.

Once you’ve been locked up, you then also fall victim to the chaos of UAE courts. Judges fail to show up for work, so after spending a whole day sitting in the courtroom waiting for the judge to appear, your case will be postponed again and again over a period of months while you languish in a cell. Jamie Harron was lucky enough to get bail, but his conviction for drinking alcohol was made “in absentia” because it didn’t occur to any court official to inform him of the date of his trial.

That the spate of detentions is due to arbitrary enforcement of the law and not ignorance becomes very clear when you take into account the fact that people with connections to influential officials like UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba  can flout the country’s laws with impunity  while ordinary guys like Jamie Harron get hit hard. Until the UAE has a justice system that is predictable, accountable, and transparent, “knowing the law” will not save you from the nightmare of being thrown in jail for any reason or no reason at all.

By Shezanne Cassim 10 Oct, 2017

Dubai cops have locked up a tourist for drinking at a bar.

Jamie Harron, a 27-year-old British tourist is facing a three-year jail sentence in Dubai after allegedly putting his hand out in a bar  to stop himself spilling his drink  and touching a man’s hip. That man called the police.

Harron’s case is yet another example of how vulnerable tourists are to being arbitrarily detained in the UAE, where merely an accusation is enough to have someone jailed. Harron was charged with drinking alcohol even though he was at a bar that is permitted by the government to sell alcohol to patrons, including tourists. The Dubai government portrays the city as a modern and liberal tourist haven, but Harron’s case shows how tourists and residents are at constant risk just for merely drinking at the very hotels and other establishments the government promotes.

Harron is now facing charges of “drinking alcohol” and “public indecency.” Harron was in a jail for five days before being released on bail, but has since been trapped in the UAE for three months. He has lost his job and racked up over £30,000 (approximately $39,000) in legal fees and expenses.

Harron was expected to show up for a court hearing last Sunday, but the court moved the hearing date without informing him. Harron has now reportedly been sentenced to 30 days imprisonment for failing to show up.

UAE court proceedings are a shambles. There’s no due process, so anyone who doesn’t like your face can get you detained just by complaining to the police. Once they’re locked up, prisoners aren’t informed that they’re due in court until the morning of the hearing, judges don’t show up for work and even court clerks are completely unaware of the judge’s whereabouts or which cases are to be tried on that day. Prisoners are often not brought to their hearings by the police. It is not surprising that Harron has become a victim of the Dubai justice system’s own mismanagement.

Until the UAE brings its justice system into the modern era, visitors and residents remain at constant risk.

By Shezanne Cassim 30 Aug, 2017

The UN’s International Day of the Victims of  Enforced Disappearances  falls on Wednesday, August 30. It’s particularly ugly for the UAE this year because it marks over five months of its continuing detention of award-winning Emirati human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor.

In the early hours of March 20 2017, UAE security officials abducted Mansoor from his home. Mansoor’s family had  no idea of his whereabouts  until officials released a statement nine days later saying he was being held at Abu Dhabi’s central prison.

The fact that a person who has emphatically called for an end to arbitrary detention in the UAE has himself become a victim of enforced disappearance is another black mark on the UAE’s reputation. What’s more, of course, is that Mansoor’s experience is just the tip of the iceberg for what has become an epidemic of enforced disappearances and unlawful detention in the UAE.

The UAE has worked hard to build itself an image as a liberal, forward-thinking society, but its continuing practice of enforced disappearances gives it a reputation that’s exactly the opposite. It’s well past time for the UAE to release Ahmed Mansoor and the others its officials have abducted.

By Shezanne Cassim 03 Aug, 2017

A British student currently serving a 9-year prison sentence in the UAE is appealing to the ruler of the emirate of Sharjah for a royal  pardon , bringing attention yet again to UAE officials’ routine use of false confessions to secure convictions.

Ahmad Zeidan, now 23, was jailed for drug possession at the age of 19 after accepting a ride in a car in which police found 0.04 grams of cocaine. Zeidan states he was tortured into making a false confession.

It’s been clear for several years that UAE officials routinely rely on false confessions to unlawfully detain and convict innocent people. There’s the UK’s David Haigh, whom Dubai Police officers  tortured  while trying to force him to make a confession, and there are the American, Canadian, and Libyan businessmen UAE State Security officials tortured into  falsely confessing  to supporting terrorism. Then there’s me: I was forced to sign a  false confession  accepted without investigation and used by the UAE Supreme Court as the sole basis for my conviction.

Zeidan’s case is just one of the most recent instances of UAE officials using this method to stack the deck in their favor. A recent  report  by the nonprofit organization Reprieve (UK) found that 85% of prisoners for whom it had data at Dubai Central Prison said they were forced to sign documents in a language they did not understand.  More than 75% of them said they had been physically abused in detention, and—like me—96% had been interrogated by police without seeing a lawyer.

Zeidan’s case highlights the risk people can face if they live in, or even just visit, the UAE. Innocent people are jailed indefinitely without regard to widely recognized human rights—including the right to defend themselves. Productive members of society are ripped from their jobs (or, in Zeidan’s case, from their education) and are held hostage from their families. They’re financially ruined by the costs of trying to fight a legal system that has unrecognizable rules, protects the state and not the individual, and faces very little pressure to change. Detainees have to bear the cost of paying local lawyers who have little power to represent their clients who, despite being in jail, must keep paying rent and other bills or risk having another criminal case brought against them for unpaid debts.

The UAE markets itself as a strong ally of the United States, and it uses its glamorous image to encourage Americans to move there for work or to visit as tourists. But if the UAE cannot guarantee travelers’ safety and liberty—and refuses to restore justice to mistreated individuals— the United States would be wise to take steps to protect its citizens. It’s time for the UAE to stop its abuses.

By Shezanne Cassim 18 Jul, 2017

Thanks to a  report  by The Intercept, we now know that, in May 2013, the United Arab Emirates paid out a secret $10 million settlement to Khaled Hassen, an American businessman whom its officials had abducted and tortured while detaining  him incommunicado from January 1984 to November 1985.

This means that, while I was being detained without charge after uploading a comedy video to YouTube, the UAE was paying the price for unlawfully detaining and mistreating another person. Despite being aware of the illegality of its abuses, the UAE chose to continue my unlawful detention for another eight months, releasing me only after my family and friends launched an international campaign to secure my release.

As The Intercept revealed, on Christmas Day 2013—eight months into my detention—Senator Amy Klobuchar urged UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba for my release by stating that “I continue to be shocked that he is still in jail [...] I believe your country has reached a place on the world stage where these things matter even if they were acceptable in the past.” Ambassador Al Otaiba’s response that  “I assure you that’s precisely the case I am making and it does have merit” shows that UAE officials were very much aware that their actions were illegal .

And that was not the last time the UAE would admit fault. Soon after my release in January 2014—only after a show trial where judges used a false confession to find me “guilty” of “endangering the country’s national security”—UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum admitted that my mistreatment was a  mistake .

So, even after settling with Hassen, the UAE continued to detain me—and several other individuals—unlawfully. The abduction and torture of  American  and  Canadian  businessmen in Dubai in 2014, for example, are fresh in memory, and there are surely still others currently enduring mistreatment in the UAE’s prisons despite having done nothing wrong. We deserve justice too.

By Shezanne Cassim 05 May, 2017

The new Dubai Font that was launched with much fanfare by the Dubai government and Microsoft earlier this week was quickly shot down by people who  pointed out  that promotional slogans like “Expression has no boundaries or limits” were completely at odds with the UAE’s draconian restrictions against free expression. As Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas McGeehan and others have pointed out on  Twitter , a look at the fine print (no pun attempted) very much bears that out: the Dubai government wants to retain control over what people say while using the font.

The Dubai font is available for download from a Government of Dubai website whose  Terms of Use  come with some striking restrictions.

First, those terms assert that use of the font is governed by UAE law, and that “You hereby irrevocably submit to the jurisdiction of the Courts of the Emirate of Dubai.”

By Shezanne Cassim 02 May, 2017

Dubai’s crown prince, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, announced the launch of the  Dubai Font —Dubai’s own Microsoft font—on Sunday amid official announcements that included phrases like “Expression knows no boundaries or limits,” and “Expression is strength and freedom. It defines who you are.”

I know firsthand how detached from reality these statements are, and you don’t have to look very far at all to see the UAE’s many boundaries and limits against expression. You can be jailed for posting a  comedy video  based on your own childhood, of course. But there are also the restrictions on  academic freedom , the harsh and inexplicable treatment of residents who have posted innocuous  pictures  on Facebook, the risk that talking about  fires and floods  could get you charged with threatening state security, the confiscation by officials of a  short-story collection  set in Dubai, the restrictions on what you can and can’t say in private conversations on  WhatsApp —the list goes on.

And then there’s  Ahmed Mansoor , the award-winning Emirati human-rights activist who has been in detention since March for peacefully expressing his views. Not only is Mansoor an example of the UAE’s restrictions on expression, his experiences fighting off  spyware  from hackers suspected of working on behalf of UAE authorities raise a disturbing question: is it a good idea to download anything—even a font—that’s being promoted by UAE officials?

By PardonShez Campaign 21 Mar, 2017

In the early hours of Monday, March 20, UAE human-rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was abducted from his home by UAE security officials. At this time, his whereabouts are unknown, and we fear that Ahmed is at risk of torture or other mistreatment.

Ahmed Mansoor is the 2015 laureate of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and he has been a prominent voice for human rights and progressive change in the UAE. In 2016, Ahmed was celebrated for bringing to light attempts by suspected UAE security officials to install  sophisticated spyware  on his iPhone.

We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Ahmed Mansoor.

By Shezanne Cassim 11 Mar, 2017

British citizen  Malcolm Munroe  has been hospitalized since he suffered a stroke in 2013. The construction company he owned in Dubai collapsed soon afterward. Munroe can only move his head, is fed through a tube, and is permanently connected to an oxygen tank, but a Dubai court handed him a three-year prison sentence for debts owed by his now-defunct company.

Unlike in developed countries, you can be sent to  prison  in the UAE just for being too broke to pay your personal debts—if you lost track of your bank balance and wrote a check that bounced, say, or if you’re late paying a medical bill. The United States, for example, ended the criminalization of bankruptcy and the use of debtors’ prisons in the 1800s, but more than two hundred years later, the UAE is still sticking to this archaic practice. It seriously undercuts the UAE’s self-image as a modern and forward-thinking country.

Munroe’s situation is a reminder that, with the UAE’s chronically outdated laws, you can go to jail there if you have done nothing wrong, or worse, even if you are the victim of an illness. As  UAE businesses fail  in the region’s current economic downturn, small-business owners are fleeing the country to avoid going to prison for their companies’ debts. Employees who have worked hard and done nothing wrong go unpaid for months and end up failing to pay their credit card bills and personal loans, and then face penalties ranging from travel bans to jail time as a result.

While I was imprisoned in the UAE, I encountered people who were jailed for failing to pay their debts and even those  jailed for trying to quit their jobs . In one case, I met a man who had been detained for a year--without trial--after his business partner accused him of embezzlement. He was eventually acquitted, but immediately faced new charges relating to unpaid debt because his business had collapsed during the year he was imprisoned.

There was immense hope that a new UAE federal bankruptcy law might end the practice of jailing people over unpaid personal debt. But the law that became effective in late 2016 fails to protect  individuals . Without such protections, many people working in the UAE are just one unfortunate circumstance away from being jailed.

By Shezanne Cassim 04 Mar, 2017

The British Irish Commercial Bar Association (BICBA) has come under criticism for promoting Dubai as a “world centre for arbitration” despite the well-known failings of the UAE legal system.

Last week, Detained in Dubai, an organization that assists victims of injustice in the UAE,  warned  BICBA against promoting Dubai’s legal and arbitration systems citing the UAE judicial system’s proven record of corruption, unfair trials, denial of access to justice, arbitrary detention, and human rights violations. BICBA is to hold a seminar in Dubai on March 14 to promote the UAE as an arbitration centre.

I know from my own experience that neutrality and integrity are not hallmarks of the UAE’s courts. Instead of acting with integrity as an independent arbiter of justice, the UAE’s judicial system all too often serves to rubber-stamp the state and is happy to move the goalposts to suit the government. I’ve pointed out the failure of the UAE to guarantee  fair trials  or due process, and UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers has found that the UAE judicial system is  controlled  by the executive branch of the UAE government.

Ironically, a  recent change  to the UAE Penal Code has left international lawyers wary of acting as arbitrators in the UAE. As a result of the revised law, arbitrators who are accused of “failing to maintain the requirements of integrity and impartiality” may be imprisoned. Lawyers considering working as arbitrators have been alarmed that the revised law has not defined “integrity” or “impartiality,” and that they can be jailed even if they didn’t know they were in violation. What’s more, all it would take for an arbitrator to face criminal charges would be an unsubstantiated complaint.

Despite BICBA’s best attempts, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for anyone to have faith in the UAE legal system.

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By Shezanne Cassim 21 Oct, 2017

Reports of travelers being locked up while on holiday in—or simply passing through—the UAE continue to regularly make news. Because the UAE has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a modern business and tourist destination, this continuous news drip makes local officials and lawyers defensive. Instead of fixing the problem, they have decided to explain that this isn’t the UAE’s fault. In at least one recent news  article  published by state-controlled media, officials have claimed that the real problem is that travelers are jailed because they don’t know the country’s laws.

But this spate of arbitrary detentions has nothing to do with travelers who don’t have a handbook of UAE laws. The problem is that, first, the UAE’s laws are unclear and unpredictably enforced and, second, people can be detained without warning for some harmless act and then be denied the right to defend themselves.

The case of Jamie Harron illustrates this point to a farcical degree. While on a two-day stopover in Dubai this July, Harron, 27, from Scotland, visited a bar. According to Harron, he touched a man’s hip while preventing a drink from spilling. That man took offense and called the police. Harron was detained and charged with drinking alcohol and “public indecency” solely on the basis of the man’s complaint. Harron, who was granted bail after five days in jail, has lost his job and has racked up over £30,000 ($40,000) in legal bills. The judge handed him a  30-day jail sentence  for the charge of drinking alcohol. He’s now waiting for a judgment on the “public indecency” charge on October 22.

Here’s the problem: it wouldn’t have mattered if Harron knew the law because the UAE's alcohol laws are not consistently enforced. Though Dubai markets itself as a great place to drink, and thousands of tourists do so in the city’s many bars,  it’s illegal for tourists to consume alcohol . The catcher is that the law is only enforced some of the time, and there’s no telling when or who will be targeted.

Knowing the law wouldn’t have helped Harron avoid a charge of “public indecency” for touching the man’s hip, either. The vagueness of UAE laws means that anyone can find any action “offensive” and have you detained just by complaining to the police. Recently, individuals have been prosecuted for a  handshake , posting a picture of a fox on Facebook, or taking  pictures of a local racetrack  or even just taking  pictures of the sunset . In the UAE, someone could find the way you walk, the way you breathe, or the way you laugh “offensive” and have you locked up with just his word against yours.

Once detained, you will be unable defend yourself because there’s no due process. Police and prosecutors are free to fabricate evidence against you, and you can be denied access to an attorney (who can’t do much to help you anyway) while judges go along with it all.

Once you’ve been locked up, you then also fall victim to the chaos of UAE courts. Judges fail to show up for work, so after spending a whole day sitting in the courtroom waiting for the judge to appear, your case will be postponed again and again over a period of months while you languish in a cell. Jamie Harron was lucky enough to get bail, but his conviction for drinking alcohol was made “in absentia” because it didn’t occur to any court official to inform him of the date of his trial.

That the spate of detentions is due to arbitrary enforcement of the law and not ignorance becomes very clear when you take into account the fact that people with connections to influential officials like UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba  can flout the country’s laws with impunity  while ordinary guys like Jamie Harron get hit hard. Until the UAE has a justice system that is predictable, accountable, and transparent, “knowing the law” will not save you from the nightmare of being thrown in jail for any reason or no reason at all.

By Shezanne Cassim 10 Oct, 2017

Dubai cops have locked up a tourist for drinking at a bar.

Jamie Harron, a 27-year-old British tourist is facing a three-year jail sentence in Dubai after allegedly putting his hand out in a bar  to stop himself spilling his drink  and touching a man’s hip. That man called the police.

Harron’s case is yet another example of how vulnerable tourists are to being arbitrarily detained in the UAE, where merely an accusation is enough to have someone jailed. Harron was charged with drinking alcohol even though he was at a bar that is permitted by the government to sell alcohol to patrons, including tourists. The Dubai government portrays the city as a modern and liberal tourist haven, but Harron’s case shows how tourists and residents are at constant risk just for merely drinking at the very hotels and other establishments the government promotes.

Harron is now facing charges of “drinking alcohol” and “public indecency.” Harron was in a jail for five days before being released on bail, but has since been trapped in the UAE for three months. He has lost his job and racked up over £30,000 (approximately $39,000) in legal fees and expenses.

Harron was expected to show up for a court hearing last Sunday, but the court moved the hearing date without informing him. Harron has now reportedly been sentenced to 30 days imprisonment for failing to show up.

UAE court proceedings are a shambles. There’s no due process, so anyone who doesn’t like your face can get you detained just by complaining to the police. Once they’re locked up, prisoners aren’t informed that they’re due in court until the morning of the hearing, judges don’t show up for work and even court clerks are completely unaware of the judge’s whereabouts or which cases are to be tried on that day. Prisoners are often not brought to their hearings by the police. It is not surprising that Harron has become a victim of the Dubai justice system’s own mismanagement.

Until the UAE brings its justice system into the modern era, visitors and residents remain at constant risk.

By Shezanne Cassim 30 Aug, 2017

The UN’s International Day of the Victims of  Enforced Disappearances  falls on Wednesday, August 30. It’s particularly ugly for the UAE this year because it marks over five months of its continuing detention of award-winning Emirati human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor.

In the early hours of March 20 2017, UAE security officials abducted Mansoor from his home. Mansoor’s family had  no idea of his whereabouts  until officials released a statement nine days later saying he was being held at Abu Dhabi’s central prison.

The fact that a person who has emphatically called for an end to arbitrary detention in the UAE has himself become a victim of enforced disappearance is another black mark on the UAE’s reputation. What’s more, of course, is that Mansoor’s experience is just the tip of the iceberg for what has become an epidemic of enforced disappearances and unlawful detention in the UAE.

The UAE has worked hard to build itself an image as a liberal, forward-thinking society, but its continuing practice of enforced disappearances gives it a reputation that’s exactly the opposite. It’s well past time for the UAE to release Ahmed Mansoor and the others its officials have abducted.

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