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 2.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
My friends and I had posted our comedy video on YouTube in October 2012. For six months, it earned a modest number of views and overwhelmingly positive comments from local viewers who appreciated the humor and said it reminded them of their own childhoods. In making the video, I wanted to give Dubaians some home-grown entertainment that touched upon their own experiences and celebrated Dubai’s cultural peculiarities.
When Dubai Police detained me in April 2013, I hadn’t thought about the video in months. I had just started a new job as an aviation consultant at PwC. I was looking forward to continuing my work developing Dubai’s airline industry, as my mother and her colleagues had done since the 1970s. Little did I know that I would be accused of endangering UAE state security because of a video that had been online, playing to the positive comments of a local audience, for six months without incident.
Most UAE residents live in a bubble with no interaction with, or understanding of, the country’s justice system. You see the traffic police in their patrol cars. You see the police’s self-promoting, Hollywood-style publicity videos of mock chases involving sports cars, helicopters, and SWAT teams. And you assume that the officers handling investigations or security matters are well-trained and competent. But you have no idea that the police officer who takes statements might barely be able to read and write. You’re led to believe that the police officers know what they’re doing, and that if you do nothing wrong, they won’t harm you. I now know, all too well, just how wrong that perception was.
Captain Mohammed Juma Al Sayegh and the other Dubai Police officers who arrested and interrogated me shattered any belief I might have had that the UAE’s police officers were capable and professional. I was arrested simply because Captain Mohammed insisted—without any evidence at all—that my comedy video was a serious anti-UAE propaganda piece created as the result of a nefarious international conspiracy.
Despite the disclaimer at the start of the video making clear that it was fictional, and despite the obvious comedy, Captain Mohammed went out of his way to make these allegations. To make things worse, even though his job was to police internet crime, Captain Mohammed didn’t understand that YouTube users could take down their own videos or that YouTube wasn’t like a TV channel that people just turned on to watch whatever came on. And if that wasn’t enough, he then tried to spin his Inspector Clouseau -esque “investigation” to make it look like he had cunningly cracked open a dastardly plot against the UAE.
I didn’t discover just how much of an “Inspector Clouseau” Captain Mohammed was until after I returned to the United States. While I was imprisoned, I had almost no knowledge of the details of my case because prosecutors prohibited me from meeting with my attorney. But once I was back in Minnesota, I obtained a translation of the police and prosecution’s case file, which included Captain Mohammed’s arrest report. In the report, Captain Mohammed claimed that a complaint was filed by a private citizen on April 7, 2013, that he investigated the video in response and, within a few hours, had identified the participants and “tricked” them into being apprehended.
But the “private citizen” who filed the complaint was in fact Captain Mohammed’s cousin. Captain Mohammed had known about my video before the complaint was filed, and it took him an entire day of “undercover” work to find out my name even though it was clearly listed on the YouTube video description. And there was no “trickery” involved—he simply had another officer to call me and tell me to come to the station.
How did I know all this? Let’s start with Captain Mohammed’s claim that he began his “investigation” in response to a complaint.
“i have something goooood for you to load”
On April 6 2013, the day before I was detained, I received a message that had been sent to my YouTube channel’s Facebook fan page. The sender called himself “Mamadoo Al” and had a photo of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, as his profile picture. The message said, “Hi...i love your page about all the stuff happens in dubai i was wondering if you could interview me as well i have something goooood for you to load.” It was such a bizarre message that I chose to ignore it.
The Facebook message I received on April 6 2013.
I thought about that message throughout the nine months of my detention in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It was too much of a coincidence that I would receive a strange message about my comedy video the day before I was thrown in jail. When I was released and returned to Minnesota in January 2014 (and had access to the internet again), I took another look at the message and the sender’s profile pictures. What I saw shocked me: the sender, “Mamadoo Al,” was none other than Captain Mohammed, the very officer who had detained me.
One of Captain Mohammed’s older Facebook profile pictures.
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.