About this series:
This is the story of how the United Arab Emirates arrested me for doing something thousands of people do every day—posting a comedy video on YouTube. UAE officials jailed me for months without charge, denied me access to an attorney, and holed me up in a bleak maximum-security prison in the middle of the desert. My human rights were violated every step of the way, and I was eventually convicted of “endangering national security” during a flimsy trial. This is Part 1.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
On the evening of April 7, 2013, I received a call from Dubai Police. The person on the phone identified himself as “Officer Ahmed” from “Cybercrimes” and politely requested me to come to Dubai Police headquarters because there was a “small problem.”
The sprawling police compound was on the other side of the city, and I took longer to get there than the police had anticipated. My phone rang.
“Where are you?” a new voice on the phone yelled. “Come now so we can finish this quickly! Yours is not the only case! When you get here, ask for me ... Captain Mohammed in Electronic Crimes.”
I sprinted from the parking lot to the entrance of the General Department of Criminal Investigation and walked into the reception lobby panting heavily and soaked in sweat. A middle-aged, uniformed receptionist stood up from his chair with a look of bewilderment.
The receptionist did not appear to know who Captain Mohammed was, so he made several phone calls from his desk, each time mimicking my heavy breathing to the people he talked to.
Ten minutes later, he hung up the phone, and led me to a small office filled with a few men in plainclothes. I saw one of the friends with whom I had created the video seated in the same office. As I stepped into the room, he was led away by two men.
One of the men who remained in the office held up a printed screenshot of my YouTube video.
“Very handsome picture of you,” the man said. “Do you know why you’re here?”
“Because of the video?” I asked, still soaked in sweat.
“Yes, but relax!” the man said. “You didn’t kill anyone, it’s not a big deal.” I recognized the man’s voice to be that of Captain Mohammed’s, even more so when his friendly mood suddenly soured and he ordered me to hand over my phone and sit down on a metal chair positioned against the wall. I gave my phone and passcode to another man in the room and watched as he went through its contents.
“What are you trying to show?” Captain Mohammed asked. “That Dubai has no police? That the police are sleeping so you are the ones protecting the streets?”
I said no, and explained that the video was just a fictional sketch-comedy, but Captain Mohammed remained flustered.
“Don’t you know YouTube is an international site?” he said. “Millions of people watch it. What will they think? Dubai is trying to create a reputation and you go and make a video like this? Who paid you to do this?”
For the next two hours, Captain Mohammed questioned me about whether I had been paid as part of an international conspiracy until, it seemed, he was convinced I had made the video of my own accord. “You know there are many people now trying to say that government is bad,” said Captain Mohammed. “So now I will treat you as per the law. No more. No less.”
I was locked in a small cell for the rest of the night. Early the next morning, I was led into another interrogation room just as Captain Mohammed was completing his interrogation of my friend.
“So, do you want us to take down the video?” my friend asked Captain Mohammed.
“How can you take down a YouTube video?” Captain Mohammed yelled. “YouTube is a company in America!”
“We can log in and take it down,” my friend said.
“But how? Also, many people have already downloaded it!” Captain Mohammed replied. “It doesn’t matter. We will take it down from here.”
Captain Mohammed gave instructions to a uniformed officer and another policeman behind a computer, then escorted my friend out of the room. The uniformed officer informed me that he would serve as a translator, while the policeman behind the computer would transcribe my answers to the questions.
The “translator” had a poor command of English, and the typist had an even poorer ability to type—he used just two index fingers in an excruciatingly slow manner. The interrogation involved mostly simple questions such as “Since when have you been living in the country?” and “When was the video uploaded and who uploaded it?” But the interrogation also included several loaded questions such as “Did you know you were insulting the country?”, “Are you against the regime or do you have any bad feelings toward any public officials?”, and “Why did you make a video showing wrong information about the culture and habits of the country?” When I asked if I had anything to add, I explained how the disclaimer at the beginning of the video clearly highlighted that this video was fictional, but it didn’t look like the “translator” had any understanding of what I was saying
The “translator” printed a document and asked me to sign and fingerprint it.
"I don't know what this says." I said. "Can I get a lawyer to translate this for me?"
The policemen looked at each other in confusion, as if they had never heard anyone in my position ask such a question before.
“A lawyer?” the “translator” asked while glancing at his wristwatch. “A lawyer ... will not make any difference. Don’t worry, it’s all written correct.”
I assumed that a simple transcript in which I had not admitted to any criminal wrongdoing was needed so the police could close the case and release me. More importantly, given the alarming questions insinuating that I was some sort of international supervillain, I feared how the police might interpret any refusal to sign. I signed the document, unaware that I had just stamped my own conviction.
I was placed back in the cell and then shuffled from waiting room to waiting room for a few hours. I was not permitted to say a word. In one room, I sat in silence among several other detainees, while the plainclothes policeman supposedly guarding us slept at his desk. In the room next to me, I heard a woman screaming and crying.
Sometime in the afternoon, I was escorted into a dimly-lit room where a young officer sat behind a desk and a laptop. In front of the desk, was a chair which had wires attached to it. The officer told me that he was a trained polygraph examiner and that I would be undergoing a polygraph test.
"What you put in your video, have you ever seen such things in real life?” the examiner asked.
“No,” I said. “But it was just a comedy video.”
"Then why did you make it? We don’t ask that you say only good things about Dubai. We only ask that you say the truth.”
I did not respond. I was in shock that people in such positions of responsibility were still under the impression that my homemade fictional video, uploaded alongside a blooper reel, was a professionally-produced documentary.
“You know there is a big case happening now. Many Emiratis are in the custody of State Security,” the examiner warned me. “Are you part of any governmental organization? Do you know what I mean by that?”
"Like UNICEF or something?" I asked.
“Not that kind of organization,” the examiner snapped back.
“No, I’m not.” I said.
The very mention of State Security—the UAE’s secret police—had me gripped by fear, but I answered the examiner’s questions as calmly as I could. “Is today Monday?”, “Are you part of any NGO?”, “Did anyone incent you to make this video?”, the examiner asked several times over. I denied any involvement in an international conspiracy. When I was done, I was taken to another waiting room, where the polygraph examiner appeared half an hour later with the results.
“The results show no evidence of deception,” he said. “That’s good.”
I was relieved by the news, and happy when a friendly officer arrived to escort me out of the interrogation block.
“Very nice video!” he said while laughing and smiling from ear to ear. “But this is UAE not USA.”
He returned me to the electronic crimes office where I waited patiently to be released. He sat down behind a desk and leaned back in his chair, the whole time staring at me with that same huge grin. “You know we will put you in the jail where it’s all mixed,” he laughed. “Killers, rapists, everyone together.”
Thinking he was joking, I chuckled.
But he wasn’t joking. “Now you will eat dal for five years!” he said, thrusting his fist into the air to suggest a fist being shoved up my rectum.
Evening came, and I had still not been released. Instead, I watched one of the officers place my phone into an evidence bag, heat seal it, and place it at his desk. My friend was brought into the room—along with another friend from the video—and both were seated next to me. Shortly afterwards, a policeman walked in with a handful of plastic handcuffs, and threw them on the floor. Grabbing a few of the handcuffs, the officer who had just confiscated my phone approached me.
“Stand up! Make a line! Put your hands behind your back!” he said.
“Are we under arrest?” I asked.
“Yes,” the officer replied.
“Can you please tell me how we can apply for bail?”
“When you get to the station you can apply.”
“So we can apply for bail when we get there?”
“Yes,” the officer said. “Of course.”
I was cuffed, placed in a police van, and deposited at the Bur Dubai Police Station jail, a forty-five-minute drive from Police Headquarters in traffic. I remained completely oblivious to the circumstances surrounding my arrest. Indeed it was only after my release nine months later, when I was able to have the case files translated, and when I was once again able to access the internet, that I pieced everything together.
Heading to the 2017 Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF)? I mean why not, right? DIFF does a great job of celebrating art and expression.
All right, I’m kidding. The government-run DIFF only pretends to do that. DIFF is more an attempt to launder Dubai’s image than a true film festival aimed at encouraging creative expression.
So what’s really going on away from the stage and cinema lights? Here are 10 things to know about free expression in Dubai.
1: Local filmmakers
must get their scripts approved by the government
Sadly, a lot of interesting things happen in Dubai that are not made into films because Big Brother will say "No." The restrictions aren’t only limited to film— books are subject to censorship too.
2: Censorship is rife.
Nudity and other things that are “harmful to national security ” are censored out of movies playing in local theaters, but the state-sanctioned DIFF conveniently screens uncensored films . Meanwhile, in 2012, Dubai residents were left fuming that they couldn’t watch Game of Thrones .
3: Posting photographs of people without their consent is a
How great would it be to take a picture of you at DIFF and post it on Instagram? Sounds harmless enough, but all it takes is one person in the crowd to report your actions, and off to jail you go. Extra time in the slammer if you’ve had any alcohol.
4: There is no freedom of the press in the UAE.
Journalists are detained , interrogated, blindfolded, forced to give up their equipment, and expelled from the country for reporting on things the government doesn’t want you to see. But some of them are first given the opportunity to turn snitch against their fellow journos for “ Some fucking good money .”
5: If you post anything online about something the government doesn’t want you to see—like heavy
, one of Dubai’s skyscraper fires, or car accidents—you could be fined and jailed indefinitely.
That’s right, the sun always shines in Dubai.
7: Watch what you tweet.
You can be jailed for “defamatory” tweets (even if you were in jail at the time and had no internet access!). And if you think using other messaging apps is safe, think again— sending a middle-finger emoji on Whatsapp can land you in jail too.
8: Dubai’s government doesn’t limit its promotional tools to just film festivals.
Earlier this year, the Dubai government launched the Dubai font to much international fanfare, urging social media users to promote the font by using the hashtag #Expressyou. Buried in the terms and conditions was a warning that the font could not be used in any manner that goes against UAE “ public morals ” and that users “irrevocably submit to the jurisdiction of the Courts of the Emirate of Dubai.” Court!? For using a font?
9: Posting video of a government official assaulting a man in the street is a serious offense.
If civic responsibility is your thing and you’ve filmed a government official committing a violent assault on the street and now want to post the video on YouTube to expose the injustice, watch out! It’s illegal and you will face more serious penalties than the person committing the assault!
10: You can’t predict what can get you in trouble.
Just ask the guy who found himself in court facing a year in jail and a $2772 fine for posting a picture of a fox (that’s right, the animal) on Facebook. The man’s friends took offense, called the cops, and—with UAE laws being as vague as they are—he was up against a “defamation” charge.
Enjoy DIFF, but be aware that, in Dubai, expressing yourself can get you thrown into a very uncomfortable prison where there are definitely no movie nights.
Planning a trip to Dubai? Looking forward to hitting up some of Dubai’s hip bars and enjoying a few drinks while you’re there? Before you go, you should know that Dubai’s been in the news lately because of its tendency to arbitrarily throw people in jail for things like drinking alcohol.
Local officials maintain that the problem is that tourists are ignorant of the law. But the truth is that Dubai’s antiquated shambles of a justice system, like a bad case of tile grout, needs serious professional cleaning. Dubai’s laws are vague, confusing, and arbitrarily enforced.*
So, if getting jailed for a normal activity—like drinking at a bar in Dubai—isn’t really your thing, there are a few things you should know about the law to avoid from becoming, shall we say, “unavoidably detained.”
Here are 10 things to know about drinking in Dubai:
1: You may not drink or possess alcohol in Dubai
without an alcohol license
Where do you get one? See Point 2.
2: Visitors are
for an alcohol license.
Read Point 1 again and scratch your head.
3: Drinking alcohol without a license is a jailable offense.
How much jail time are we talking about? A local newspaper says six months , but a Chief Justice says five years . Is the Chief Justice just having a bad day? Do Dubai justice-system officials simply make things up as they go along? Are those things mutually exclusive? You would be wise to ponder.
4: You are not allowed to have
alcohol in your body when in public.
When you’ve had some bubbly on the plane and land at the airport with alcohol in your system, welcome to Dubai! You’ve just committed your first jailable offense.
5: When you buy alcohol at the airport duty free, you’ve just committed your second jailable offense.
And you haven’t even left the airport yet! Seriously, stop.
6: If you’re a tourist,
it’s illegal to drink at a bar
Even if you’re at a hotel bar and everyone around you is a fellow tourist knocking back shot after shot, it’s not legal for you to drink (and everyone else is breaking the law too). Sure, no-one’s getting handcuffed and thrown into the back seat of a cop car right now, but are you willing to bet your freedom, your job, or your life on the odds that your luck will hold?
7: Thinking about drinking while being Muslim? Sorry,
No license for you!
8: Thinking about attending a house party? Then you’d better hope the neighbors don’t report the party.
If they do, be prepared to spend months in an overcrowded, maggot-infested jail sleeping on a sweat, blood, and pus-stained mattress while prosecutors “investigate.”
9: A mere accusation of wrongdoing is enough to draw police attention.
If that random guy you touched to avoid spilling your drink accuses you of sexual assault and calls the cops and you have alcohol in your system, you can now look forward to going to jail for sexual assault and drinking illegally!
10: Even Dubai’s judges admit
the alcohol license and laws are confusing
Would you trust a heart surgeon who couldn’t tell the difference between your heart and your rectum? Trusting a judge in Dubai poses a similar conundrum.
If you’re the adventurous type, have fun while you’re in Dubai. But not too much fun...unless you’re prepared to have your weekend trip turned into an unknowably long tour of Dubai’s awful jail cells.*Author’s note: As much as those officials will blame you for not knowing the law, I was raised in Dubai and even I can’t say for sure what the law on drinking actually is. The relevant law isn’t officially published anywhere that mere mortals can access (just try doing a web search for it—just try). The best I can do is tell you what the state-controlled local media says is the law.