An American entrepreneur and former inspirational speaker who was trying to make a future for himself and his family in Dubai has fallen foul of the Middle Eastern state’s harsh and ill-defined Cybercrime Laws.
Fitness professional Jordan Branford, 44, from Eugene, Oregon in the USA used the word 'bitch' on Instagram. In the socially conservative state of Dubai, 'bitch' can be interpreted as an offensive word, even when not directed at a specific person; and in the UAE is subject to criminal sanctions.
A complaint was brought against him by his estranged wife, despite the fact nobody was named in Jordan’s post, and the American father found himself in court, convicted and sentenced to a fine of AED 250,000 (US$ 68,000) followed by deportation.
Jordan’s finances are now completely depleted after paying for legal defence, and he has lost his business along the way. As he is unable to pay the fine, the alternative under UAE law is for him to serve out a sentence in the country’s notoriously violent prison system, with each day served equivalent to AED 100 (about $27). Meaning that the total amount of days will be 2500, or just under 7 years. When Jordan does eventually get home, he will be in his early fifties, penniless, and will have to start his life all over again from nothing.
The problems started for Jordan when his marriage broke down in early 2016. “I was working a lot of hours trying to build up my fitness business “American Fitness,” Jordan tells us. “My own father was not around when I was young, and my mother and I were left to fend for ourselves. I really wanted to make a comfortable future for my beautiful son, Jadan. My friends and people I knew were coming to me everyday with reports of my wife behaving in ways that no spouse would accept. I didn’t want to believe these stories, but in the end I had to face the truth. Our relationship dissolved entirely and I moved out of our home.”
Jordan in the back garden of his Dubai home
Jordan’s wife tried unsuccessfully several times to sue Jordan for hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I was heartbroken,” Jordan continues. “I know that when marriages end, it is often bitter, but she really tried to ruin me. And it seems that now she has succeeded.”
Jordan’s undoing began when he left an old Ipad at the shared home which was still logged in to all his social media accounts.
Jordan’s wife allegedly accessed Jordan’s private messages to friends about the split. “Some of those messages will have been angry or bitter,” Jordan admits. “It’s how I felt, and the messages were private, to supportive friends. I never expected the messages to be anything other than me privately venting my sadness and disappointment. I certainly would never have been offensive to my wife in person. I know that might sound like semantics, but I believe it helped me at the time to discuss my feelings with my close friends.”
Jordan’s wife tried to sue him over the contents of private messages. However, reading somebody else’s phone is a crime in the UAE (one which carries jail time) so Jordan’s wife was forced to stop the cases before being subject to arrest herself.
“My wife's friend kept telling me that her ‘uncle is a judge here in the UAE’, and that she use her 'wasta' (Arabic concept meaning power or influence) to get my money for my wife one way or the other,” says Jordan. “Well there is nothing more to get now. I have spent over AED 230,000 ($62,600) in both legal fees and keeping a roof over my head while trying to appeal the charges. I have not been allowed to work because of the police case, and I am also in debt to my friends and family.”
Jordan’s big mistake was when he posted on Instagram a short Instagram story of him saying the following:
“So I woke up today and heard the bitch made another case”
Jordan had not named anybody. Just foolishly made a post with the word 'bitch' in it. Even though the wife could not prove the post was about her, she could claim that the word itself offended her on general principle.
When the sentence was passed, Jordan was told to either pay the money, or serve nearly 7 years in jail before he is allowed to leave the UAE.
“This has been hanging over me for 20 months,” Jordan tells us. “I have been unable to leave or to pay. I have spent all my money and lost my business trying to fight this sentence with no success. The future I was preparing for my boy is gone.”
Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, an international NGO representing Jordan, released the following statement. “Most people are unaware that they are likely already in breach of the cybercrime laws when they arrive in the country. Under these poorly drafted and arbitrarily enforced laws, visitors can even be subject to prosecution for posts they have shared from outside of the UAE, years before visiting.
“Laws are open to manipulation and abuse by disgruntled partners, friends or colleagues. In the event of a falling out, a criminal complaint can be easily made to authorities. Even if the complaint is trivial, it can lead to arrest, lengthy detention, fines, years in prison and deportation.
“Jordan's case is an example of where the legislation lacks forethought and consideration as to how randomly it will be applied and abused at the whim of a disgruntled party. The laws have been used to threaten others and even extort them, in the event a party holds whatsapp or social media evidence that could lead to arrest.
"It is wholly unacceptable that Jordan should face seven years in prison over an Instagram story that disappears promptly from his display feed. The post simply mentioned the word "bitch" but did not name any individuals. Whether it is mentioning a word that could be argued to be derogatory, or uploading a photo of a badly parked car that could be argued to be a breach of privacy, what is clear is that the laws are a great risk to anyone living in or visiting the country.
“For what is such a trivial offence, the sentencing has been extremely harsh in this case. Violent offenders receive more lenient sentences. Jordan has already been held for 20 months, including over 2 months in the notorious Al Barsha police holding cell, and has gone through the most stressful time of his life.
“He is eager to leave the UAE, a country that he loved, and return to the US to be reunited with his son.”
Stirling continues, “At the moment a visitor can be jailed for sharing a post by a charity on Facebook if the charity is not approved by the UAE. This includes anything posted years before the visitor arrives in the UAE. Meaning that a huge amount of people are guilty of this crime, and theoretically risk arrest even while transiting through Dubai airport, if reported in advance or if their devices are inspected in transit.
Other offences which carry jail time are any kind of rudeness, including using the middle finger emoji on Whatsapp, posting pictures which include any other people without their permission (even in crowds), and the government have even announced before that posting pictures of extreme weather is an illegal activity.”
- Jordan first arrived in UAE February 2008
- First company he owned was called DubaiFit
- Second company he owned was called American Fitness
- The third and final company Jordan owned was called The Body challenge
- The court was Dubai Court of First Instance
- The court date was March 14th 2017.
- He was sentenced to a fine of AED 250,000 (US$ 68,000)
- He is from Eugene Oregon
- He got into the fitness business by weight training himself, to improve his jumping for basketball
- He started training other people at 23 years old.
- His company’s first contract was with Dubai offshore sailing club
British national Yaseen Killick discovered recently that angry texting can wind you up in jail in Dubai in an instant. After having been apparently cheated by an unscrupulous used car dealer, Killick messaged the man to vent his dissatisfaction, asking him “how do you sleep at night…?”
Yaseen was seized at Dubai airport as him and his wife, Robyn, headed home for christmas 2017. He was arrested and served 3 weeks in prison before being kicked out of Dubai.
David Haigh of Stirling Haigh was held in prison for six months on allegations of having used social media platform Twitter, to slander his former employer. Fortunately he was acquitted but he was subjected to legal abuse, something that of course, he was never compensated for. Haigh and his former employer were in the midst of a civil dispute and it would seem that keeping Haigh in jail and thus preventing his attention and appearance in the civil dispute, was a motivating factor for their baseless accusations. Haigh commented “It is appalling that someone can be held in the UAE on the basis of another person’s complaint on social media use. This gives too much power to authorities and to the people”.
In 2016 a man was fined Dh250,000 and jailed for insulting woman in Sharjah. The defendant was accused of insulting the woman Whatsapp who then lodged a complaint with the police.
In Abu Dhabi, Australian Jodi Magi was jailed and deported over a Facebook post which included a picture of a car parked across two disabled spaces outside her flat in February of 2015. The case attracted worldwide press attention for the 39 year old who is said to have“complained of being traumatised by the extreme reaction to a jpg of a car posted to a closed Facebook page”.
In 2016 British-Australian national, Scott Richards was arrested for sharing a charity post on Facebook raising money for refugees in Afghanistan. Scott unwittingly fell foul of the United Arab Emirates’ laws banning the operation of any charity not registered in the country. As part of an international campaign to have Scott freed from prison,