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.
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.