The United Nations commemorated the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance. “Disappearances Day” supports victims who are “arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, … [including private groups and individuals acting with government support.]” We weren’t in the habit of thinking about enforced disappearances. Of course, we knew about the thousands of people who were disappeared by Argentina’s military regime between 1976 and 1983, among many other horrific examples. And we admired the work human rights groups undertook to help free enforced disappearance victims around the world.
But before 2013, it hadn’t occurred to either of us that disappearance victims could include someone who held a regular 9- to-5 job with an international consulting firm, had a fixed address in a country that’s a strong U.S. ally (the United Arab Emirates), and hung out with friends on the weekends.
Such a person was too much like us—and was exactly like Shezanne Cassim.
Shez, then a 28-year-old American aviation consultant with PwC in Dubai, had grown up in the U.A.E. and returned there after graduating from the University of Minnesota. In April 2013, he received a call from Dubai police, who ordered him to report to police headquarters immediately. In short order, Shez was detained and imprisoned because of a comedy video he and friends had made one weekend that lampooned Dubai’s hip-hop-loving teenagers. Here was a smart young professional who was familiar with the U.A.E.’s laws and customs and had done nothing to violate them. Yet, he was detained without charge and without recourse.
After several months in custody, U.A.E. authorities finally charged him with threatening the country’s state security. Shortly after being detained, U.A.E. authorities had forced Shez to sign a false confession written in Arabic—a language he can’t read—and denied access to an attorney. After two months at a city jail, authorities moved Shez to a maximum-security desert prison—oddly enough, in roughly the same desert where parts of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was filmed. Shez was released after nine months of indefinite detention, following an international campaign we led to secure his release.
The U.A.E’s justice system bears no resemblance to what travelers from the west expect of a justice system. And the typical travel guidance the U.S. and other countries tend to give do not prepare you for being detained for having poppy seeds from a bread roll on your clothing. Plus, you won’t be offered an interpreter, so your Arabic-speaking skills had better be rock solid, and your defense attorney will probably not be permitted to meet with you, let alone have much power to defend you, either.
Shez’s experience shocked us particularly because the U.A.E. is not some rogue state with an ax to grind against the West, but a close ally of the United States that has tried to build itself an image as a liberal business and tourism destination. What’s more, Shez’s case wasn’t a one-off occurrence but was part of a growing pattern of extralegal detention and abuse of innocent people by U.A.E. officials.
We also learned that many of the U.A.E.’s victims had been held on other nonsensical charges like photographing an improperly-parked vehicle. Or, worse yet, for rape—as in for being raped.
This is why former U.A.E. detainees from around the world this week teamed up to urge their respective countries to take two actions:
- Update travel advisories and alerts to warn citizens of the significant risk of indefinite, incommunicado detention without appeal, the denial of due process including the right to legal representation or a fair trial, and the risk of physical abuse and torture by UAE security officials.
- Impose visa bans on UAE officials who have been complicit in human rights violations, based on established precedent for this action and to deter future abuses.
The U.A.E. can be a great place, especially if you’re an A-list celebrity or athlete. But too many visitors and expatriates have stories of being detained for using social media, conducting academic research, practicing medicine, or simply running a business.
The threat of enforced disappearance in the U.A.E. is very real. Despite its claims of being a modern country, U.A.E. officials routinely detain people for doing things millions of people do worldwide. In one hand, the U.A.E holds glamorous tourist attractions, a generally open business environment, and exciting surroundings. But the other U.A.E. hand can deliver a brutally mean slap since it holds arcane laws, no recognizable due process, no accountability for officials and no recourse for individuals wrongly detained. This is how in less than one minute a person can go from being a professional living an ordinary life to being disappeared and then imprisoned.
It happened to Shez and it’s still happening to others in the U.A.E..