When Artur Ligęska went to the Federal Court in Abu Dhabi on January 28th ,2019, after 9 months in detention, he felt hopeful. He had been accused of possessing and consuming methamphetamines, something he had never done in his life. Drug tests showed no trace of the substance in his system, and no drugs were found in his possession. At his last court appearance, his defence attorney had argued that there was absolutely no proof for the charges against Artur, and the police report confirmed the complete absence of physical evidence. It had been a long, traumatic experience, but Artur felt confident that it would finally be coming to an end.
“But five seconds after proceedings began,” Artur says, “I heard two – literally just two – words from the judge. ‘Life sentence’”
Artur was arrested, and eventually convicted on the farcical charges of possessing drugs he did not possess, and consuming drugs that were not in his system, based on information provided to the police via a “secret source”.
“It is alarmingly common in the UAE for police and prosecutors to detain and charge people from a single statement by an alleged witness,” says Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai. “In drugs cases, these supposed witnesses are often themselves under arrest, and coerced by the police into implicating others. The names they provide the police may or may not be involved in drugs, but the fact that their names have been given is usually taken as definitive evidence against them in court, despite being entirely untrue.”
Artur went to Dubai after a series of personal and professional losses to restart his life in October 2017; and he was doing well. In Poland, Artur had worked in the fitness industry for years; advancing his career from being a personal trainer until he founded his own fitness centre. After suffering a deterioration in his health before leaving Poland, Artur was recovering, and focused on trying to start a gym in Dubai.
In April, 2018, Artur was on his way back from training at a fitness centre when he was suddenly stopped by police and arrested on drug charges. Knowing that it had to be a mistake, he voluntarily submitted to a blood test. Friends assert that Artur has been devoted to a healthy lifestyle, and that any suggestion of drug use is patently absurd. The results came back three weeks later; no drugs were found in his system.
The charges were not dismissed however; instead, police forced Artur to sign documents in Arabic which he could not understand, threatening him with 2 years imprisonment if he refused. Stirling explains, “Forced confessions are routinely imposed on detainees in the UAE, especially when they do not understand Arabic. The documents Artur was coerced into signing are almost certainly false admissions of guilt. In perhaps 99% of arrests in the UAE, suspects ‘confess’ to the charges against them. These confessions are extracted by the police sometimes by mere trickery, with promises of release or threats of severe sentences if one refuses to sign; or by means of verbal and physical abuse. Once a confession has been signed, a guilty verdict is guaranteed, even if the suspect recants in court and testifies to the coercion.”
After 5 months in detention, Artur was moved into Solitary Confinement in Abu Dhabi’s notorious Al-Sadr prison; a harsh maximum security facility in the desert, so remote food supplies are brought in by plane. The UAE consigns only the worst, most dangerous criminals to Al-Sadr, and the conditions of detention are almost medievally cruel. In one of two messages Artur has been able to get out to his friends and family, he said he is in a 4 metre-square cell “without a bed, mattress or even a shower. I am completely isolated from the outside world.” He has been consistently denied vital medicine since his arrest.
Stirling says, “Artur is trying to stay strong. Living through what is everyone’s worst nightmare; falsely accused in a foreign country by a ‘secret source’, tried by a kangaroo court, and sentenced to life imprisonment in unspeakably harsh conditions, totally cut off from the world. And the fact is, in the UAE, this can happen to anyone. Artur did nothing wrong, he obeyed the law; he was like any other expat trying to build a life in Dubai. But his life was ambushed by a corrupt legal system that disregards basic evidentiary standards and due process; and he is not the only one.
“European governments need to do more to warn their citizens about the dangers of visiting the UAE, and to intervene on their behalf when they are unjustly detained. Artur’s case is outrageous, and even more outrageous is how easily the same thing can happen again. The UAE government must act to quash the verdict against Artur, and let him go home. They need to acknowledge that what has happened in this case is a travesty, and prove to the international community that they do not accept or approve such a horrendous miscarriage of justice. It is wholly unacceptable that the UAE government seems to have made zero progress over the past ten years, despite incidences of incompetence, legal abuse and brutality being regularly highlighted to the government".
Artur recorded a plea for freedom from detention which has since been published on YouTube
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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