Recent world news has been full of high profile cases involving Brits and other expats treated inhumanely by Dubai's immature legal system. Torture, disproportionate punishments, Interpol abuse over minor debts and detention of unsuspecting tourists. One organisation is always there, fighting to get justice and fair treatment for the victims. A look behind the scenes of Detained In Dubai.
The world is full of injustice. What made Radha Stirling get involved in Dubai in particular?
"It started with Cat Le Huy back in 2008," Radha says. "Cat was a friend and colleague working for Endemol, a UK broadcast giant. He was arrested at Dubai Airport because airport security mistook his melatonin jet lag pills for heroin. When the pills were shown to be completely legal and available over the counter in the UAE, the security man then claimed to have also found 0.03 grams of hashish in Cat's bag, an amount to small to be seen with the naked eye. Cat was suddenly facing years in prison over what seemed like a security guard being embarrassed at making a mistake.
"With my background being in both law and media, I started a media campaign and coordinated the local legal efforts to secure Cat’s full acquittal and return to the UK, which took us around six weeks. It was the worst experience of Cat's life but he is free now and was fortunate that he was not sentences to the expected four years in prison. After Cat was safe, I began received floods of letters and emails from other people whose lives had been ruined by the UAE's approach to justice and I realised Cat’s situation was not unique. There were no other organisations who helped foreigners in the UAE and with my recent experience, I wanted to continue to help.”
London. Radha Stirling has to travel frequently for Interpol defences and to deliver expert testimony on UAE legal cases.
It seems like a lot of people get into difficult situations in Dubai. What do most of the calls for help involve?
"It is so varied that it's difficult to categorise. Jamie, Billy and Jamil have dominated the news recently but over the years we have had everything you can imagine and plenty that you never could. We have attended to everything from rape victims reporting the crime to the police, only to find themselves jailed for having sex outside of marriage, to plane spotters who were arrested for taking photos at an airport. People arrested for 'liking' a charity on Facebook because it was not pre-approved by the UAE and others for breaching privacy by uploading a photo of a car, even with the number plate covered.
"Nearly all of the time our support gets them home safely, provided we are contacted in time. Sometimes we are not approached until it is too late, such as with Lee Bradley Brown, a Brit jailed for allegedly being rude to a maid in his hotel. Lee died while in custody, reportedly beaten to death by police in the infamous Bur Dubai police station.
"A lot of day to day work comes from the country's unique debt laws. In the UAE, debt is a criminal matter rather than a civil one. People are jailed for missing a couple of credit card or loan payments. The banks won't restructure or help the debtor to manage the liability because they have the threat of jail to use against the customer instead.
“UAE Bank boss Abdulfattah Sharaf openly admits that Dubai banks hold debtors in jail rather than help them to restructure payments, because they believe that friends or family will eventually come to their aid and pay the debts for them. This is nothing short of holding debtors for ransom.
Abdulfattah Sharaf. HSBC’s country head says, “jailing debtors works.”
"Unsurprisingly expats who see jail in their future often flee the country and try to negotiate from safety. The banks then turn to unprofessional, aggressive debt collection agencies who unlawfully harass the debtor, his friends and family, new place of work and even customers or clients in an attempt to pressure the victim into paying. The UAE also abuses a their membership with Interpol to chase debtors. Debt collection is not in Interpol's mandate, but the UAE routinely reclassifies simple debt cases as fraud so that Interpol can have the debtors arrested while the UAE attempts extradition. The UAE voluntarily makes large annual donations to Interpol and this may be influential in their decision making.
“Despite regular calls from Detained In Dubai and other human rights groups, Interpol steadfastly refuses to implement verification processes for Red Notices issued by offending states like the UAE, or penalties for member states abusing the organisation's system in this way.”
What do you see as the way forward for the UAE, surely they can't just let people get away with not paying their debts?
"There are a lot of things that need modernising. The banks need to take more responsibility for who they lend to and how much. Debts need to be decriminalised since, without the threat of jail, banks would be forced to be more helpful with restructuring for people who genuinely want to pay but whose circumstances have changed. Finally the country needs effective bankruptcy laws. Recently, attempts have been made in this direction but are a very long way from being operable.”
There is injustice all over the world. Why does Dubai merit all of your energy?
"The UAE tries so hard to market itself as a modern, desirable place to visit or live, seeming so beautiful, modern and fun that people have no idea about risks. The list is long, but imprisonable offences include drinking alcohol, being rude (even mildly, such as a middle finger emoji on Whatsapp), taking a picture of a stranger, saying anything negative about the government or country, holding hands in public and even posting a picture on Facebook of bad weather can constitute a cybercrime violation.
"Many countries are dangerous, the difference is that usually you are aware of the perils and can choose to prepare for them. In the UAE's case, they invest in marketing and public relations to present themselves as safe and welcoming but have seemingly failed to invest in judicial improvements that are necessary for a country to operate smoothly. If the judicial system is flawed, everyone is at risk.
"Our own Foreign Office, whose job it is to warn and protect our citizens from threats in other countries seem to do the absolute minimum in this regard. In fact, many observers are sceptical about the FCO prioritising trade and diplomatic relations with the UAE over the safety of British citizens. Detained In Dubai has responded to clients by organising a class action by British citizens against the British government who they feel have failed in their duty of care to them.”
Do you see this as a lifelong crusade, injustice and human rights violations in Dubai?
"What we really hope is that Dubai grows and adapts and improves its system to ensure the safety of visitors and expats. I feel that the UAE wants to modernise and that the rulers would love to have a fair, mature legal system. Most of the oil ran out a long time ago and their vision for the future is to be a hub for commerce and tourism. I think they are aware of their problems and have a genuine desire to fix them.
"The existing laws and judicial procedures are being abused at the highest levels to their financial advantage. Without proper process, Emiratis are able to misappropriate and even outright steal assets and cash from foreigners. These people have little incentive to support steps to modernise the system. We do see the UAE changing and improving but expect that this will take many years.
"There will never be a shortage of other countries we can focus our work on. Qatar for example, has many similar problems to the ones the UAE struggles with."
Dubai. Modern buildings and tax free earnings, but are the risks worth it?
Finally, do you have a message for people heading to Dubai, either to work or for a holiday?
"People need to understand the laws which can be quite confusing and unexpected. Most visitors to the UAE are in breach of local laws at the moment they arrive. An example of this could be any social media posts that are considered offensive, even if they shared the content from another country, years ago.
"Visitors often share a hotel room with someone they are not married to, wear clothing that is inappropriate, bring prescribed medicine or consume alcohol. While tourists will see this behaviour as common in the UAE, they are at risk of arrest. False allegations are commonplace and hearsay evidence sufficient to secure charges and conviction. Visitors should be aware that the marketing surrounding Dubai as a party place with a relaxed and western attitude, is not supported by their laws or enforcement.”