In January 2016, Dubai prosecutors accused “WK,” a 38-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, of practicing sorcery against the children of her employer. Unfortunately, the fact that a woman can still be put on trial for witchcraft in the UAE in 2016 is not surprising given how its justice system operates.
The root problem is that the UAE justice system is structured to be unfair and inequitable. Unlike modern legal systems in which an impartial court adjudicates between prosecution and defense, the UAE system is firmly stacked in favor of the prosecution. Police don’t have to justify arrests or investigate allegations, the prosecution has the power to detain suspects indefinitely—without filing charges—and both police and prosecutors are free to fabricate evidence. The burden of proof falls entirely on the defendant to establish her or his innocence.
This allegation of sorcery against WK shows how UAE prosecutors can bring outlandish charges against detainees without regard for the bounds of reality. And because UAE courts unquestioningly accept prosecutors’ allegations as fact, defense lawyers have little ability to influence a case.
UAE Police and Prosecutors Don’t Have to Justify Arrests
All it takes for someone in the UAE to be taken into arbitrary detention is a complaint . The police aren’t required to seek evidence to justify an arrest, and are under no pressure to investigate the alleged offense once the accused is in detention.
Prosecutors and Police Can Fabricate Evidence
As UAE legal academic Dr. Mohammad Al Hammadi recently noted, the UAE justice system lacks sufficient rules of evidence , a basic requirement in a functioning judiciary. This means that there is no clarity on what UAE courts can or cannot accept as evidence. That, and a lack of transparency or accountability, makes it easy for prosecutors to use false evidence and for judges to allow it.
News reports of WK’s case claim that she admitted to practicing sorcery, but in light of my experience, it seems likely her “admission” was a false confession fabricated by police or prosecutors.
When I was detained in Dubai, police officers accused me of threatening state security because I created a comedy video. After I was interrogated and denied the accusations against me, the officers put an Arabic document—which they told me was a transcript of the interrogation—in front of me and told me to sign. I can’t read Arabic, so I asked for a lawyer, but this request was summarily refused, as if I was crazy to even make such an unheard-of request. Fearing physical repercussions, I signed the document. After my release, I discovered the document was a false confession, fabricated by Captain Mohammed Juma Al Sayegh of the Dubai Police Electronic Crimes Department. In that document, I “confessed” that my comedy video was a serious attempt to show the “negativities of Dubai.” The UAE Supreme Court used that false confession as the only evidence to find me guilty of “endangering the public order.”
A Dubai prosecutor also interrogated me while I was jailed at Bur Dubai Police Station. His only line of questioning was to irritably ask, “Why you don’t make movies about America?” It was only after my release that I learned that the prosecutor had added numerous false statements, attributed to me, to his written transcript of the interrogation.
Detainees Can be Denied Access to a Lawyer
It’s very likely that WK did not have access to a lawyer when she was detained and interrogated.
During my detention, prosecutors had complete control over my access to counsel, and my lawyers had no power to challenge this. During nine months of detention, the prosecution never permitted a meeting with my UAE attorneys—not one.
What’s more, the prosecution exercised the power to deny me bail, and judges rubber-stamped the prosecution’s detention orders for five months before I was charged solely on the prosecution’s promises that my case was “under investigation.”
UAE Courts Unquestioningly Accept The Prosecution’s Allegations as Fact
Unfortunately, it’s likely that even if WK has a lawyer defending her, it won’t do her much good.
The UAE Supreme Court accepted the false confession the prosecution attributed to me as indisputable fact. My “trial” was a court appearance at which my UAE defense lawyer was allowed only to hand the judge a memorandum of defense. He wasn’t permitted to call any witnesses or challenge the police or the prosecution.
The larger implication of WK’s case—and mine—is that unchecked prosecutorial power, lack of defense powers for detainees, and shoddy rules of evidence combine to challenge the credibility of all prosecutions in the UAE.
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.