x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Legal charity aims to aid 'inadvertent offenders'

A new charity that helps UAE expatriates who fall foul of the law says it has been overwhelmed with calls.

ABU DHABI // A new charity that helps expatriates who fall foul of the law says it has been overwhelmed with calls. Radha Stirling established the London-based non-profit organisation three months ago after becoming involved in the UAE legal system when her colleague was arrested on a business trip after being found in possession of melatonin, a natural remedy for jet-lag and other sleep disorders, even though it is not illegal here.

The charity, which runs with the help of 20 volunteers, interns and researchers and a network of more than 20 lawyers and advisers, is receiving an average of 15 inquiries a day, Ms Stirling said. Many are from those concerned about travelling to the UAE with prescription drugs. But around five a day are from those who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law here. One or two are from relatives of those already in prison.

"We're flat out," Ms Stirling said. "I wasn't expecting this many people; it's keeping us very busy." The organisation, Detained in Dubai, aims to provide advice and guidance for those imprisoned and their families. It can also give legal counsel and liaise with embassies and the authorities. Ms Stirling said many of those who contacted her had found themselves in trouble inadvertently. Swearing and gesturing, which may have few legal consequences in a person's home country, are considered far more serious offences here.

An increasing number of people are also contacting her regarding financial crimes, such as breach of trust and embezzlement. Ms Stirling also hopes to raise awareness of problems that can occur so people are on their "best behaviour" when travelling through the country. "It's important that the information is out there on what can happen so people realise that it isn't the West," Ms Stirling said. "It's marketed that way in Australia and America and London, and most people are expecting to be treated pretty much as they would be here, so they don't worry about swearing or things like that but they need to be aware that can cause quite severe problems."

Ms Stirling's friend and work associate Cat Le-Huy, an executive with the television production company Endomol, was arrested at the airport when found in possession of melatonin. A urine sample showed he had no illegal drugs in his system, but a scraping from his bag was found to contain 0.03 grams of cannabis, smaller than a grain of sugar. He was eventually freed without charge, but the process took almost two months, and Mr Le-Huy lost his job and was forced to pay steep legal fees.

"It can be a huge disruption to someone's life," Ms Stirling said. "If you are accused of something, whether you've done it or not, whether there's evidence or not, you can be detained for quite lengthy periods and lose your job and fall behind in payments and spend a lot of money on legal representation." The organisation is assisting in the case of Sun McKay, 32, a former Australian soldier who was arrested after allegedly swearing at an airport official in September and has been unable to leave the country since. He claims he was unaware that the man, who he said approached him in plain clothes and shouted at him in Arabic, was a policeman.

"The core issue is the very low burden of proof needed to confiscate someone's passport and prevent them from travelling and put them in jail," Ms Stirling said. There ought to be a preliminary hearing within 48 hours of someone being detained, she said, so if there is insufficient evidence a person can be released without too much disruption. Most of those who contact the charity are westerners, Ms Stirling said, particularly Britons and Australians.

British nationals are more likely to be arrested in the UAE than anywhere else in the world, according to a recent study, and the British ambassador, Edward Oakden, has stressed that travellers should familiarise themselves with local laws and customs before visiting. About 400 Britons were arrested in the UAE between January 2008 and August this year, with 91 Australians apprehended during that period.

Ms Stirling hopes to provide support for those that do not speak Arabic or are not familiar with the country, for whom the judicial system can be confusing. Those embassies can provide consular assistance, but they generally draw the line at interfering in legal proceedings. Nick Owalski, 30, and David Wynn, 27, both from Britain, found themselves on the wrong side of the law when immigration officials made a random inspection of the property firm where they worked in June. At the time of the raid the men were waiting for their work visas to be processed and were arrested for working on tourist visas. Mr Owalski had been working for Allsopp & Allsopp for just two days, and Mr Wynn for 10.

"It's been a complete nightmare," said a friend of Mr Wynn's who did not wish to be named. "Everyone works on a tourist visa when they first get here." After initially being allowed bail, the men were imprisoned following a hearing last month and are now awaiting judgment on their appeal, which was lodged yesterday. "Nobody knows what the rules are," the friend said. "When you are arrested for whatever reason, you just don't know what to do. Everything's in Arabic, and the embassy doesn't do much to help. You literally don't know where to turn."

lmorris@thenational.ae