x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Jailed dive centre woman is free

Diving instructor thanks her supporters and says she may return to her native South Africa.

Roxanne Hillier has already been out diving following her release from jail on Thursday.
Roxanne Hillier has already been out diving following her release from jail on Thursday.

A South African diving instructor who was jailed in Sharjah on charges of having sex outside marriage has been freed early. Roxanne Hillier, 22, was released on Thursday after being pardoned by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, Ruler of Sharjah, the South African newspaper Beeld reported.

The news was confirmed on a web page set up by Ms Hillier's family to campaign for her freedom. Ms Hillier, who had been due for release next month, wrote on the page: "Well, I am free." She was arrested on May 16 after police broke into the Khor Fakkan dive centre where she worked. Ms Hillier was sleeping in an upstairs room at the facility, while her boss, an Emirati in his forties, was tending to dive equipment.

The police operation ended in a three-month jail sentence for Ms Hillier and a six-month sentence for MH, her employer. They were charged with having sex and being alone in a commercial building after hours. News of the case attracted the attention of the human rights lobby group Amnesty International, which pointed out that medical reports had failed to provide evidence that the pair had had sex.

MH was released in June, following a reduction of his sentence by an appeal court in Khor Fakkan. However, Ms Hillier's sentence was confirmed. Her family set up a friends' support group on the social networking website Facebook and launched an online petition for her release. They also appealed directly to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, as well as to the South African president, Jacob Zuma.

Ms Hillier and her family were not available for comment yesterday. But over the weekend, Ms Hillier addressed the Facebook group's 2,600 members, telling them what it felt like to be free. "Everything is fantastic - the grass seems greener, the skies more blue and every cushion a piece of heaven for me," she wrote. "Possibly I will fly on Monday back to South Africa, but for now I am going to enjoy a sleep on a real bed with a mattress.

"No more concrete beds for me. Thank you all for your wonderful support and everyone who signed the petition. "It has meant the world for me and made being inside a whole lot easier knowing I have got so many people behind me and supporting me and my family through our time of need." Ms Hillier told of her first two dives after her detention. Her mission to see elusive sea horses was unsuccessful.

"They are meant to torment me but, on the bright side, I saw a big turtle and I will try again tomorrow," she wrote. More than 600 messages of support were published on the online forum following the news of Ms Hillier's release. One supporter from the UAE wrote: "Prayers have been answered. We are so happy for you Roxanne, and your family. Wishing you the best of luck and good fortune ahead." Another message read: "Hey Rox, what an experience and ordeal you have been through.

"Glad you are free. Write it all down to experience. Nobody ever said life would be fair." A South African supporter wrote: "Thank goodness everything went well. All the time I kept on thinking 'what if it was my daughter?' "I am truly glad that I was part of the petition process. Enjoy your freedom and cherish every moment. Stay safe." Ms Hillier's 20-year-old sister, Maxine, who had been working for a dive centre at the Beach Rotana hotel in Abu Dhabi, left the country earlier this month.

vtodorova@thenational.ae