After heavy rains and subsequent flooding in the UAE earlier this month, the news website Emirates 24/7 reported that UAE officials warned the country’s residents against “spreading rumours and posting negative images and videos of rains, accidents and fires on social networking sites.”
According to the report, UAE lawyer Yousef Al Sharif said that sharing videos and images of the weather in a manner that “harms the country’s reputation and disrupts public peace” and spreading false information or rumors online that damages the reputation of the country is punishable by law, implying that such acts would violate the UAE’s Cyber Crimes Law .
It’s unsettling that these warnings are based on what officials said was people sharing images of weather-related occurrences—like heavy rain—on social media. It’s also unsettling that it’s unclear if these officials referred to specific incidents.
Article 29 of the Cyber Crimes Law calls for imprisonment and a fine for publishing “Information, news, statements or rumors on a website or any computer network or information technology means with intent to make sarcasm or damage the reputation, prestige or stature of the State or any of its institutions.”
Article 28 calls for imprisonment and a fine for sharing images that “May endanger the national security and the higher interests of the State or afflicts its public order.”
This raises three very serious concerns:
Posting a picture of naturally-occurring weather phenomena can now be a criminal offense;
Posting such a picture would constitute not just a criminal offense but a serious federal state security offense. The prosecution would have unfettered control over judges and defense attorneys, and the case would be automatically placed under the jurisdiction of the State Security Chamber of the UAE Supreme Court, where there would be no chance to appeal the verdict;
The determination of whether any such picture is “negative” is left entirely up to the subjective opinions of police officers and prosecutors with unchecked power.
This means that if an official simply chooses to believe that an image is negative, the person who posted the image could be arbitrarily placed in detention. Police and prosecutors would be free to fabricate evidence that supports their accusations—including false confessions—without any penalty and deny the person access to a lawyer, as has happened in my case and several others. The end result would be a guilty verdict with no possibility of appeal.
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.