The British Government Must Do More for UK Torture Victims in the UAE
In recent years, there has been a steady rise of cases in the UAE concerning the arbitrary detention of British citizens. This conversely comes at a time when relations between the UK government and the Emirati regime have never been closer, it was recently announced that the two countries are set to double bilateral trade to up to £25bn by 2020.
The arbitrary detention of British nationals in the UAE is an issue that is often under-reported by the UK media, and largely ignored by the British government, leaving those residing or travelling in the UAE increasingly at risk of ill-treatment at the hands of the Emirati authorities.
Probably the most high profile case in recent years concerning the detention of a British national in the UAE has been that of David Haigh, who was arrested in Dubai in May 2014 after his former employer GFH Capital, an equity firm based in Dubai, accused him of fraud, claims that Haigh has vigorously denied to this day.
The former MD of Leeds United Football Club went on to spend twenty-three months in detention, a period in which Haigh alleges he was subjected to torture by UAE security officials on numerous occasions; this included being beaten, physically assaulted, tasered, and subjected to sensory sleep deprivation, as well as being forced to watch other prisoners being tortured in front of him.
Since his return to the UK in 2016, Haigh has continued to receive medical treatment for the physical injuries he sustained during his detention, as well as psychiatric therapy after being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Despite numerous requests to do so by rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, the UK government failed to publicly condemn the UAE authorities in relation to the matter, or provide any meaningful and substantive assistance to the British citizen during his detention in Dubai.
The former Leeds United MD has since launched a legal challenge against the Emirati guards that subjected him to torture during his detention. Haigh's lawyer, Tony Cadman conceded that they were relying on “political will from the British and UAE governments” in order for the case to triumph, something that has been sorely lacking in recent times when it comes to dialogue concerning human rights issues.
Another more pressing case, in which the British government have given little sign of intervening in, concerns the imprisonment of Ahmad Zeidan, a British student from Reading detained by the UAE authorities since 2014. The twenty-three year old has been detained in Dubai for four years after being sentenced to nine years in prison on drug charges.
Whilst living in Dubai studying at the Emirates Aviation college, in 2013, Ahmad found himself part of a group of people who accepted a ride in a friend's car. The vehicle was subsequently stopped by police who searched it and found 0.04 grams of cocaine. Twenty year old at the time of the arrest, Ahmad claimed he was held in solitary confinement for two days, where he was strip searched, brutally beaten, threatened with rape, and forced into signing a confession written in Arabic, a language he does not understand. The others involved in the incident that evening have since been acquitted or pardoned by Emirati authorities, whilst Zeidan, the only British citizen involved in the incident, has remained in incarceration.
Four years on, Zeidan's family insist that Ahmad has been 'forgotten' by the British Foreign Office, and that as a result of their inaction, he's effectively been left to 'rot in a UAE prison'.
In 2016, Reading West MP, Alok Sharma raised Zeidan's case in Parliament, though in the bilateral meeting that followed, the detained student's father was reportedly told by a Foreign Office case worker that “it was decided that Ahmad's case did not reach the threshold for Her Majesty's Government to support a clemency request”.
Human rights charity Reprieve heavily criticised the British government for not formally requesting a pardon, stating that the use of torture, and a forced confession were “more than enough reason for the British government to request his release”. Although a Foreign Office spokesman maintains they are assisting Ahmad with his case, his father has claimed this has amounted to no more than a monthly visit to his son from a British embassy representative.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have provided guidance on their website for British prisoners in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It states that anyone who cannot afford a lawyer will have to represent themselves in court unless the charges faced attract the death penalty or life imprisonment.
This was the case when an unnamed British woman was detained in Dubai for having extramarital sex after reporting a rape crime. The family had to set up an online crowdfunding page in order to raise fees needed for her representation. Being denied any form of legal representation due to financial difficulties is in contradiction to various international laws ensuring every person condemned has the right to be legally represented, even for severe crimes.
The charges against the woman were later dropped by the UAE authorities because of intensive worldwide media condemnation, rather than as a result of due process or any meaningful intervention from the British government.
Over the last five years there have been around 1,350 cases of British women being detained in the UAE, a substantial number of which have reported torture and mistreatment at the hands of the Emirati authorities. A freedom of information request to the FCO last year found that the UK Foreign office has intervened in just 28 of those cases, despite maintaining 50 pages of data for each of the prisoners as they monitor their situations.
It is of course not possible for the UK Foreign Office to intervene in all of these cases, there are questions of sovereignty, and the fact that they are unable to directly investigate criminal investigations abroad. Rather, the main issue centres around the fact that, politically, the UK government maintains close diplomatic ties with the UAE despite its flagrant disregard for international human rights law.
In some respects, this silence on behalf of the British government severely puts UK citizens in the UAE at risk. By not issuing stronger public statements of condemnation when British nationals have their basic human rights violated in the UAE, the Emirati authorities are given the green light to do as they please with British citizens within their borders without fear of repercussion from the UK government. It is in this context that the British state risks complicity in whitewashing human rights violations in the UAE.
Soft power, and image management are hugely important factors to the Emirati regime in terms of its geopolitical ambitions and trading relations. The UAE authorities go to great lengths to stress that the country is both open and tolerant, a thriving business hub that is welcoming of foreign nationals wishing to travel, reside or work in an otherwise hostile and often closed region.
These cases demonstrate that there is a divergence between the image that the UAE seeks to project, and the underlying realities on the ground. However, this will not be exposed and the rights of those in the UAE will not improve, as long as the British government and the wider international community remain silent in the face of such routinised injustices.