Women stuck in Dubai over WhatsApp "frightened to death"
Woman’s facing a chaotic Middle Eastern legal system says she has “no idea what is going on, what is coming next, and how long it could take”.
A young woman’s plans to reunite with her family in England came to an abrupt halt, when police wouldn’t let her board a plane. She’d shipped all of her belongings home, after living in Dubai for two years, and was ready for her new life, before being told she couldn’t leave because of a rude WhatsApp message sent to her Ukrainian flatmate.
“This is a terrifying situation for anyone to face. She had to attend several different police stations, where staff have limited English and communication is difficult. Every officer seemed to have a different take on what would happen to her, how long it would take and if she’d be allowed to go. Most people find this experience traumatising.
“The police confiscated her passport and her mobile phone to gather the evidence. The police took the woman’s statement which admitted the rude word, but they still feel the need to process her phone through their forensic department, a process in itself, that can take weeks or months. Nothing is clear and nothing is logical. If she’s admitted the crime in her statement, do they really need to drag her through a lengthy evidence gathering process?
“When the UAE first published their Cybercrime Laws, we realised they were the single biggest risk to visitors to the country. The broadness in scope essentially criminalised everyone, and gave practically limitless sentencing discretion to judges. A private WhatsApp message to a friend, colleague, or ex partner can land you in jail. Even more unimaginable is the extraterritorial element. You do not even have to be in the UAE when you send the message. This is extremely dangerous for visitors to the country.
“We have approached the British consular office for assistance, and the UAE’s Ambassador to Britain to investigate the matter. Without intervention, the woman is likely to spend months in the UAE, awaiting judgment which may or may not be a prison sentence. This is no way to treat visitors and expats in Dubai”.
The human resources manager has been worried sick, her visa expires in a few days and she can’t believe anyone would use the law like that. In an emotional discussion with Radha Stirling today, crying, she said “This is like the nightmare all over again at the thought of losing my job. They cannot send a report until the forensics compiles the report of my phone (even though I said I said the word and did not deny it the prosecutor still needs that apparently) but no one seems to know when that report will be done. I call every day. I’ve told them I have no apartment and no job here and no money and that my visa expires 12 Feb - they just don’t understand. I’m banging my head against a brick wall. No one cares”.
Detained in Dubai expects that without intervention, the young woman, who wishes to remain anonymous for now, will be dragged through the slow legal system. She no longer has an apartment, and will face difficulties with loss of employment, legal and accommodation fees. “The UAE’s Cybercrime Laws are a dangerous threat to foreigners”, added Ms Stirling.
Laleh Shahravesh speaking after her release.