Mother of 3, Swedish national and Kent resident Dr Ellie Holman was arrested on the 13th of July 2018 for having a single glass of wine on her Emirates Airline flight to Dubai. An immigration official questioned her about her entry visa, and asked her if she had consumed any alcohol. Ellie told the truth that she was offered one glass on the plane. She was charged with offending the immigration officer and consuming a glass of wine. Both of them were initially denied food, water and restroom access, then held in prison for 3 days together. Now Ellie faces being detained in Dubai for up to a year awaiting her court hearing
44 year old Ellie Holman is a Swedish Dentist living with her English partner, Gary, and their three children in Sevenoaks, Kent. She and their youngest daughter, Bibi were heading to Dubai for a 5 day break before she resumed school in September. The family had been many times to the UAE and have friends there.
This time, Dr Holman made the mistake of getting on the wrong side of an immigration official, who has had her jailed, denied food, water and air conditioning in police detention, together with her 4 year old child who had no idea why she was being punished.The flight was 8 hours long. Bibi was already tired and ready to sleep when at customs, an immigration official told Ellie that her visa was not in order. Dr Holman had already visited Dubai on this visa, but because the visa date had not expired, she believed it was still valid for more visits. The official was dismissive and rude. He told Ellie it was only a single visit visa and she needed to buy a ticket back to London immediately.
Dr Holman and 4 year old Bibi
Dr Holman, at the end of an 8 hour flight, looking after an active 4 year old, and badly needing a rest, pleaded with the official to to see if there was any way of applying for a visa on the spot.
She was as non confrontational as possible as she needed to get Bibi to her friends’ house for a much needed shower and some rest. “The thought of buying another ticket and turning straight around for another long flight was unthinkable” says the dentist.
Dubai Immigration official
The official became angry that Dr Holman was not doing as she was told immediately. The official said nothing in reply to Ellies’ questions, then suddenly barked in Arabic at some of his colleagues, who came over to join them. ‘Have you been drinking?’ he asked Dr Holman, right out of the blue.
Ellie saw no point in being dishonest. “Yes, I had a glass of wine on the flight. Given to me free by Emirates Airline staff,” she told him.
He immediately told Ellie, “It’s not allowed. You must come with me.”
The official informed Dr Holman that possession of alcohol is a crime in the UAE, even if it is inside a person’s body. This is despite the bars in the airport and the fact that his country’s airline staff had given her the wine. As he became increasingly intimidating, Ellie took a video of what was happening for her own protection, action that is encouraged in the West. She had no idea this was also a criminal offence in the Emirates.
Before Dr Holman knew what was happening, there were more than a dozen men and women all around her and her child. Some police, some uniformed Immigration officials. Some of them had guns and they surrounded the mother and daughter. Ellie and Bibi were taken into custody, their phones and passports were confiscated, and the pair were marched to a cell somewhere in the airport building. “My daughter is a happy, smiley girl, but now she was terrified,” as the officials spoke angrily in Arabic, a language Ellie does not understand.
For two hours Dr Holman and her daughter were left alone in the cell. They were not allowed water, food or even to visit the bathroom. “My little girl had to go to the toilet on the cell floor. I have never heard her cry in the same way as she did in that cell,” Ellie says. She tried to comfort Bibi by reading to her from her books, but Bibi was inconsolable.
Eventually the police and immigration staff came back. This time they were all smiles, saying everything would be ok. Now Ellie believes this was so she did not make a fuss as they were led through the airport.
The police took Dr Holman and Bibi to a police car, with bars and a metal cage. “Bibi was asking me why we were in a police car and I had no answer.” Bibi was still not provided with any water.
After a long journey, the mother and child were taken to a building where an unpleasant man in a dirty lab coat told Ellie they were going to take a sample of her blood as evidence she had drunk alcohol. The reusable syringes did not look clean, they were not modern ones that get used once and thrown away. In Dr Holman’s exhausted state she let the man take her blood. “I wanted as little stress as possible in front of Bibi." The results, she was told, returned as 0.04%, less than the legal limit to drive in most countries and certainly less than Emirates Airlines would have happily provided to her in flight.
Finally the pair were given some water. Bibi was so dehydrated that she drank around a litre of water all to herself.
Next the pair were taken back in the police car to the airport detention facility. Ellie describes it as being an unreal experience. During the long, hot police van journey. She begged the police officers to let her speak to Gary (her partner) or a lawyer. They laughed at her or talked Arabic but showed no compassion.
In the airport prison itself, Ellie could see other inmates and hear fights, although she and Bibi were in a cell on their own. The guards took out Dr Holman’’s earrings and tried to rip out her hair extensions. Bibi and Ellie badly needed a change of clothes. It was midnight by now and they were completely drained. The prison was baking hot and foul smelling, with no air conditioning.
For some reason Dr Holman and her daughter were not allowed to sleep in the cell. They were told to drag a filthy mattress to the big room where the prisoners eat. The male guards offered no help moving the mattress, and they seemed to find it funny watching Ellie and Bibi struggling with it themselves. The bright lights were left on all night, making it even more difficult to sleep.
The pair didn’t eat for three days. “The food smelled like rotting garbage and neither Bibi or I could face trying it. I stayed awake for the whole 3 days," Says Dr Holman. Some of the other inmates relayed stories of being raped by guards and police officers so Holman tried to stay awake and keep Bibi out of sight.
Bibi before her Dubai prison ordeal
The pair were not allowed clothes, or even a pillow because ‘it was not Tuesday, when these items are dispensed.’
“By now, my partner Gary knew something was wrong and had flown to Dubai to look for me. Friends had found out I was in jail and tried to visit. Nobody was allowed to see us. We were not even told," Dr Holman continued
The next day Ellie was made to clean toilets and floors. Bibi was close by but had retreated into herself. Ellie tried to be cheerful for her but Bibi knew things were badly wrong and refused to be comforted.
After 3 days Ellie was taken in handcuffs back to the airport where she was given bail. “My passport was kept and remains confiscated until the case is settled, which I have been told will take at least a year.”
“So far this situation has cost me around £30,000 in legal fees, expenses and missed work. My practise is closed. All of our savings are gone. Gary has had to return home with Bibi, but I have my other two children, Suri (9) and Noah (8) here to comfort me for a week.”
Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained In Dubai, the British human rights NGO representing Ellie released the following statement:
“The UAE maintains a deliberately misleading facade that alcohol consumption is perfectly legal for visitors. This is exampled by Emirates Airlines serving alcohol in flight, by bars at the airport, by hotels, restaurants and clubs serving drinks. Tourists can not be blamed for believing that the Emirates are tolerant of Western drinking habits but this is far from reality.
It is wholly illegal for any tourist to have any level of alcohol in their blood, even if consumed in flight and provided by Dubai’s own airline. It is confusing when alcohol is provided so freely by licensed bars and hotels. The issue is that there is no clear law that defines acceptable blood alcohol levels in public. It is a zero tolerance and if breathalysed, usually as a result of another complaint, you can be prosecuted even where the blood alcohol reading is very low.
Over the past ten years, we have helped numerous tourists who been completely unaware that drinking in a licensed bar is illegal. Why would they be aware? Their governments have not warned them, the airline has not warned them and the bar they ordered the drinks at has not warned them. This is because the UAE does not want to publicly admit that drinking alcohol at bars is against the law. They prefer to lure tourists in to believing that the gulf state is a tolerant party destination comparable to Las Vegas or Bangkok and nothing could be farther from the truth.
It is time that all airlines transiting through or to the UAE cease serving alcohol to passengers, criminalising them and risking their arrest. If consumption of alcohol is illegal in the UAE, airlines are complicit in serving alcohol to their passengers and need to be accountable and liable for their actions. I expect that we will soon see airlines being sued for damages and losses incurred by their passengers when they are arrested. Perhaps when criminalising passengers results in financial losses for the airlines, we will see the practice cease”.
If a country will jail a mother and child over a glass of wine provided by their own airline, this should serve as a grave warning and we encourage the FCO to issue immediate warnings and statements to press that the consumption of alcohol in flight is prohibited. The UAE has tried to cover up the fact that alcohol is illegal in order to market the country to unsuspecting tourists. The UK government needs to take a stand and counter their PR efforts to protect British nationals.
“It’s heartbreaking to see a mother and child arrested over something so trivial as a glass of wine. This is a regime that has open complaints at the United Nations for human rights violations, torture and the enforced disappearance of Princess Latifa, the ruler’s of Dubai’s own daughter. This is not a country that tourists should be spending their money in or supporting in any way. The UAE jails people for poppy seed bread rolls, for prescribed medicines, for their use of twitter and for consuming alcohol at licensed premises. It persecutes the LGBTQ community and jails rape victims for sex outside marriage. British nationals are strongly advised to avoid the UAE and choose safer holiday destinations”.