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 3.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
On April 6, 2013 Captain Mohammed Juma Al Sayegh—using the alias “Mamadoo Al”—sent me a Facebook message saying, “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.” The very next day, I was called to Police HQ.
In his arrest report, Captain Mohammed claimed he started his “investigation” in response to a complaint filed by a private citizen. But the fact that he sent his Facebook message a day before the complaint was filed showed that he had lied about when he began his investigation.
“Scaring Away The Tourists”
Still on Captain Mohammed’s Facebook page, one name among his list of friends caught my eye: “Ali Mohd Ahli.”
The complaint that had been filed against me was also included in the police and prosecution’s case file. In the UAE, individuals can be held for indeterminate amounts of time solely on the basis of an unverified complaint by a member of the public.
This complaint had been filed by somebody named Ali Mohammed Jaffar Mohammed Ahli—a person completely unknown to me. Ahli claimed that he had viewed a video on the internet of individuals “engaging in military drills.” According to Ahli, the purpose of the video was to “spread fear and terror between the people,” “tarnish the reputation of Dubai,” and “scare tourists away from entering the country.” These allegations were, of course, absurd, and could be disproved simply by watching the video.
I wondered if Captain Mohammed’s Facebook friend “Ali Mohd Ahli” could be the same person who filed the false complaint.
“Ali Mohd Ahli” appeared on Captain Mohammed’s Facebook friends list.
I dug a little deeper. The date of birth listed on “Ali Mohd Ahli”’s Facebook profile matched the date of birth listed among the complainant’s details. I then looked at Ahli’s Instagram account. There, a number of posts were geotagged at the same home address as the complainant in Captain Mohammed’s report, and there were pictures of Ahli with Captain Mohammed’s father, referring to him as “my uncle.” Ahli was indeed the complainant. And he clearly appeared to be Captain Mohammed’s cousin.
Once he had me in detention, Captain Mohammed added to his cousin’s absurd accusations. His arrest report alleged that my video portrayed “organized criminals providing defense training to its members,” that the “advanced combat system” in the video “shows gangs how to use shoes to defend themselves,” and that it “shows how to attack people in the area of Satwa.” Captain Mohammed ended his report by recommending imprisonment for “advertising or programming thoughts that would cause instability to the public or moral order.”
Captain Mohammed’s actions are a prime example of UAE police officers’ utter lack of accountability and ability to do what they want unchallenged. Captain Mohammed went out of his way to allege that the video was some sort of serious anti-UAE propaganda made as part of a conspiracy by a band of nefarious evil-doers. And to top it all off, he made it look as if he had conducted some brilliant and daring detective work to expose a vile plot against the UAE.
But that wasn’t the end of Captain Mohammed’s misdeeds. As if it wasn’t enough to make his absurd allegations, he then proceeded to fabricate a false confession.
To be continued in Part 4
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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.