David Haigh’s continuing legal battle highlights just how easy it is for a person to be whisked into arbitrary detention in the UAE. For Haigh, a former Leeds United FC managing director, one complaint by an employer was all it took for him to be arrested, and almost two years later, Haigh remains incarcerated.
Haigh, who worked in Dubai before returning to his native Britain, claims that he was invited back to Dubai by his former employer—an investment bank—to interview for a new job. But when Haigh arrived at the office, police detained him on the basis of a complaint lodged by his former employer alleging that he had defrauded it of three million British pounds.
Because the UAE justice system allows for detention solely on the basis of an unverified complaint, Haigh was held for fifteen months—much of that time without being charged or even questioned—before he was convicted of ” misappropriating items of monetary value from a position of trust .”
Haigh was sentenced to a prison term of two years, most of which he had already served, and was ordered to be released and deported in December 2015. But the day before his release date, Haigh’s former employer lodged another complaint, this time accusing him of posting “ offensive tweets .” Haigh remains in arbitrary detention while prosecutors decide whether this new complaint can proceed. Haigh insists that he didn’t post the tweets at issue because he was in jail in Dubai at the time .
Leaving aside the fact that someone can be jailed over a tweet in the UAE, Haigh’s detention underscores serious concerns about the UAE criminal justice system.
It’s shocking that just a complaint can leave an individual in prolonged detention without charge, bail, or trial while police and prosecutors “investigate.” This means anyone with a grudge can have someone thrown in jail, and it’s anybody’s guess as to when or if the detainee will ever be charged, let alone have his case heard. Haigh was in detention for at least eight months before he was charged or even questioned .
It’s inexcusable that UAE prosecutors aren’t required to bring charges promptly—if at all—and can take as long as they like. That places the burden entirely on the detainee to prove his innocence while prosecutors are under no pressure to prove guilt. If the UAE is as committed to modernity as it claims, it should require prosecutors to either charge a detainee in a timely manner or release him. This is a legal principle that has been established since the 1300s .
It’s also indefensible that UAE police don’t have to investigate an accusation before detaining the person who’s been accused, and can then take as long as they like to “investigate.” With regard to the alleged “offensive tweets,” it shouldn’t take two months (as of February 2016) for the police to show evidence—if they have any—that Haigh posted the tweets at issue.
My experience with Dubai Police makes me question whether its officers actually have the ability to investigate the “offensive tweet” allegations against Haigh. The captain of Dubai Police’s Electronic Crimes Division who detained me apparently believed that YouTube was an online TV channel broadcasting fixed content to viewers rather than a website that hosted user-generated videos. In response to an offer to take down my comedy video, he declared, “How can you take down the video? YouTube is a company in America!”
This officer, whose entire job was to investigate internet offenses, didn’t understand that YouTube users upload their own videos and can also remove them at will. It’s scary, to say the least, that officials who lack even a basic understanding of how the internet works are responsible for verifying if Haigh actually did send those tweets.
This has no resemblance to a legitimate, modern justice system. If a wealthy, high-profile Western executive like David Haigh can languish in indefinite detention in a UAE prison because of an unproven complaint, one has to wonder what risk the millions of UAE residents—and multiple thousands of tourists—face daily.
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.