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.
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.