An American woman faces possible jail time in the UAE for violating the country’s Cybercrime laws by using harsh language against a man who had been cyberbullying her and circulating compromising pictures of her online for years.
US citizen Melissa McBurnie had given up an exciting career as a personal assistant in Beverly Hills; working for such celebrities as Rob Lowe, Neil Bogart, John Denver, Joan Rivers, and Mohamed Hadid, the father of supermodel Gigi Hadid; in order to travel and pursue more fulfilling work teaching in countries like India and Thailand. On her travels she spent some time in the UAE, where she was pursued by a married, Egyptian who saw her profile on Facebook.
Melissa, a 57 year old mother of one, from Brentwood California soon became a target for the married man, when she refused to be his mistress. For the past 4 years, Melissa has been the victim of a relentless sexual harassment and cyberbullying campaign that has left her emotionally devastated, and now facing prosecution in the UAE on Cybercrime charges for finally lashing out at her abuser via email.
When Melissa refused to carry on an affair, and instead urged the suitor to legalise their relationship, the 58 year old architect wasn’t interested in anything so wholesome. He bombarded Melissa with over 120 sexually explicit emails, texts and obscene messages for over 2 years, including pornographic images and videos of himself.
Sharing a smile with his holiness the Dalai Lama. Melissa in India.
Melissa emailed her Egyptian tormenter in desperation, telling him to stop communicating with her and in her frustration, lashed out at him in the message. His behaviour didn’t stop. He had provided intimate images of Melissa to strangers, contacted third parties to slander Melissa, including the US embassy and threatened further disturbing actions. She was advised to report his harassment campaign to authorities in Egypt, where he lives.
The rejected lover then took advantage of the UAE’s strict cybercrime laws and reported her email. Melissa was arrested on the 24th February at Khalidiya police station in Abu Dhabi. After 2 hours in detention, during which the police became hostile with her, even dangling ankled handcuffs in front of her face to intimidate her, she paid 5,000 AED and was granted bail.
Melissa is trapped in the UAE until the case is heard, and faces the prospect of up to two years in jail. She has burnt through her savings and is now in debt trying to support herself while she awaits her trial.
“I just want to leave,” Melissa tells us. “I want to get away from this awfulness and get back to my family.”
Melissa is expecting to be held in Dubai until her court hearing in May. A single accusation under the UAE’s cybercrime laws is sufficient to keep a tourist in the country for lengthy periods of time, causing extensive distress and financial suffering.
Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained In Dubai explains:
“The UAE has a dismal history of punishing women who are victimised by men, whether by imprisoning women who have been sexually assaulted, or as in this case, criminalising a woman’s attempt to defend herself against slander, defamation, and the most malicious violation of her privacy imaginable.
“Melissa has been going through one of the worst nightmares a person can suffer in the age of the Internet for the past four years; she has been inundated with abusive messages of an extremely sexual nature. Yet, somehow, she is the one facing prosecution in the UAE for Cybercrime violations, simply because she used strong language against her abuser. This demonstrates yet again how poorly these laws have been written, and how susceptible they are to manipulation.
“If Melissa is prosecuted and convicted, she could face 2 years in prison despite the fact that she is clearly the only victim in this scenario.”
“Last year, we saw the high profile cases of Laleh Sharahvesh, a British woman detained for a facebook “horse” comment and an American woman, Tracy Nichole Coffel, who was detained for asking her employer for her wages.
“Penalties under the UAE’s cybercrime laws are severe and most travellers are unaware they are in violation of several laws the moment they set foot in the UAE. Sharing a charity page, re-tweeting a negative story, posting something considered offensive to others (even if that post was made years ago, from OUTSIDE the country), sharing private photos, using a VPN are all criminal offences. Even a private WhatsApp message or email can be reported if one party finds the content offensive.”
Radha Stirling, is founder and CEO of UK / USA based legal and human rights organisation Detained in Dubai, Expert Witness and respected analyst of Middle East Policy.
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