'All I want is justice': Torture survivor seeks reparation over abuses in UAE
The UAE likes to project an image of itself as a beacon of modernity, where skyscrapers dot the once barren landscape, luxury golf courses have come to replace the desert sand dunes, and five-star hotels cater to the rich and famous.
More than anything, the UAE authorities go to great lengths to stress that the country is both open and tolerant; a thriving business hub that welcomes foreign nationals wishing to travel, reside or work in an otherwise hostile and often closed region.
In some respects, this is true, thousands of foreign nationals from across the world work in the UAE in all manner of sectors, from finance to construction, many of whom, it should be said, labor in absolutely appalling conditions.
However, absent from this narrative are the very real risks and dangers those traveling to the UAE face when coming into contact with the repressive arm of the Emirati security state. It is then that the facade of tolerance and modernity begins to slip and one enters into a Kafkaesque nightmare of arbitrary detention, solitary confinement and torture.
The story of a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, Khaled Ahmad, which tells of his arbitrary detention in the UAE, quite aptly encapsulates this darker side of the Emirati state.
In May 2007, Khaled landed a job as an IT technician for the Emirates International Investments Company (EIIC) in Abu Dhabi, a business that is owned by Saif bin Zayed al Nahyan, Emirati Minister of Interior, and Deputy Prime Minister.
On 3 April 2010, Khaled, and his American fiancée Bethany boarded an Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi International Airport after a summer holiday in Damascus, Syria.
"I was so excited about working in the UAE", Khaled said on learning that he was to be transferred from working in Lebanon to the head offices in Abu Dhabi. Since beginning the job three years earlier, he had worked hard and now felt that it was all beginning to pay off. "It was a dream come true", Khaled continued, "I was convinced I was going to live the great life of luxury, as I saw in the newspapers and television of those living in the UAE."
"However, I did not know that I was just about to step into hell," said Khaled, as all that excitement and anticipation quickly turned to fear and confusion on on landing in Abu Dhabi. Before passing through passport control, Khaled claims he was taken to one side by uniformed Emirati security officials. Perplexed and scared, Khaled's American fiancée Bethany was anxiously sitting in the waiting room.
Emirati guards ordered her to go home, but when she refused to leave without her fiancée, authorities threatened her with jail time. Terrified, she made her way to her house in Abu Dhabi.
Without any explanation, Khaled said he was blindfolded and put into a car where guards tied up his hands and legs and asked him where he lived. "They entered my apartment and searched it from top to bottom. They took all my electronic devices, laptop, CDs, hard disk, even my internet router. At this point, I still had no idea why they were holding me or what I was meant to have done."
Khaled maintains that he was then taken to an unknown location in Abu Dhabi where he would stay in solitary confinement for five months and endure all manner of ill-treatment at the hands of Emirati security guards.
Eventually, Khaled was informed that he was being held under investigation for leaking important company documents, allegations, something that Khaled strongly denies to this day. "I repeatedly told them that I had never taken or stored any information from the company and that if I was guilty I simply would not have come back the UAE.
Whilst in Syria, I had heard there had been a big leak of company documents, but I knew I had absolutely no part in it so I didn't even think twice about going back to the UAE" Khaled said.
On the first day of his detention, Khaled maintains that was beaten repeatedly with a stick for more than six hours. On the second day, he was subjected to electric shocks repeatedly, and for the first three days of his detention, he was kept from sleeping.
Khaled insists that he was physically coerced into signing a false confession, "They threatened to rape, then kill me and throw my body in the desert if I didn't say what they wanted to hear. In the end, I was forced to sign a blank piece of paper that the guards took away", Khaled said.
Khaled said he was kept in solitary confinement for the duration of his detention and at no point was allowed access to a lawyer or contact with his family. When his sister enquired about his whereabouts, the authorities simply informed her that he had never arrived in the UAE, and warned her not to continue her search. In addition, his family in Syria were informed he was dead. On pursuing inquiries with representatives from the EIIC, they demanded his family "forget about him", informing them that he was dead.
After three months of torture, solitary confinement and family harassment, UAE officials decided Khaled was, in fact, innocent of being unable to find any evidence linking him to the leak.
Khaled said he was put into a car, where he thought this bizarre ordeal had finally come to an end. "I was so relieved it was finally over. I thought it was about time, and I could finally get back to my fiancée and get on with the rest of my life," he said.
However, the nightmare was far from over. They had been driving for little over an hour when suddenly the driver, under orders from the High Command, was instructed to turn back and take Khaled back to the prison for further investigations.
He was held for a further two months, "Over that period, I couldn't stop crying, I was so depressed. It was the first time in my life that I wanted to commit suicide. I started seriously considering it, to the point where I even started to look for ways in which I could do it, I had lost all hope," Khaled revealed.
After two months, the authorities released Khaled, this time for good. Despite being found innocent, on release he was extradited from the UAE.
Seven years on from the ordeal, Khaled now resides in Sweden where he is seeking justice and finding it hard to come to terms with what he has been through. "It still hurts me now, and I even cry sometimes when I remember how the security officials tortured and insulted me. I can't escape it in my dreams, I regularly have nightmares of them abusing me."
Khaled insists that he "was completely unaware that the UAE have secret prisons and treat people with such cruelty and inhumanity. But ever since my ordeal, I am now aware of what a hypocritical country the UAE is. It has a double face, the secret face that most people do not know about; it's ugly, cruel, and it makes people suffer as I have done."
Khaled is now looking to launch a legal case against the UAE authorities and the Emirates International Investments Company. He joins others such as the former MD of Leeds United Football Club, David Haigh in seeking reparations for torture and arbitrary detention in the UAE. "All I want is justice and people to know the truth about what happens in the UAE," Khaled emphasized.
Depressingly, Khaled's story is not an isolated case, rather it is symptomatic of a much wider situation where forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention have become increasingly common practice in the UAE in recent years.
Radha Stirling, the founder of Detained in Dubai, an organization that assists foreign nationals who suffer injustice in the UAE, when asked about a similar case, commented that often in the UAE, "Unfortunately, unsuspecting expats can be used as scapegoats by the actual people who have committed the crime."
This seems to ring true in the case of Khaled Ahmed. Authorities never did find any file belonging to the company, or anything untoward on his personal laptop and hard disks.
As these cases build up, it is imperative that the UAE authorities are held to account over their continued disregard for the rights of those traveling, working, and living within their borders. The international community must do more to address these issues more comprehensively if there is going to be any effective change in the UAE.