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.
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.
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.