American College Student Detained in Dubai

In mid-July, a 21-year-old college student from New York, Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, found herself in a nightmarish situation during a layover in Dubai. Her ordeal began when she and a friend opted for a 10-hour layover in Dubai, rather than Paris, expecting a glimpse of a modern and futuristic city. Little did they know that those 10 hours would turn into several months of distress and uncertainty.

The trouble began at the Dubai airport security screening when staff instructed Elizabeth to remove her doctor-mandated waist training brace. Although hesitant, she complied and was taken to a booth with female security officers who, according to her account, were rough during the process. Elizabeth described feeling violated and uncomfortable as she tried to put the brace back on, a task typically requiring two people. In her frustration and distress, she lightly nudged one of the officers to call out for her friend’s assistance.

However, what followed was unexpected. Despite a clear search result, officials informed Elizabeth that she would be detained for “touching the female customs officer.” She was held for hours while they filed a complaint against her, a situation that would trigger a complex legal process in Dubai, preventing her from leaving the country.

Dubai’s legal system is known for its stringent approach to such cases, with local scammers often exploiting them to extort money from foreigners, promising to drop charges in exchange for significant sums of money. A Texas woman previously experienced a similar ordeal, detained for months after being accused of violating the nation’s obscenity law for yelling. She was only released after paying more than $1,000 to have the travel ban against her lifted.

Elizabeth’s case is not unique, as Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, pointed out. People can end up detained in the United Arab Emirates for extended periods due to what often appear to be trivial or false charges. Stirling is currently working on another case involving a U.S. veteran who has been detained for years over a disputed debt to his children’s school.

For Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, a Lehman College student, the past few months have been a harrowing experience, marked by constant relocation between hotels and anxious waits for court hearings. Even if she eventually prevails in her case, the prospect of being forced to stay in the country for six months or more, bearing the financial burden while facing the looming threat of imprisonment, is an unacceptable consequence of transiting through Dubai.

Radha Stirling emphasized the need for a more humane approach, stating, “This is simply no way to treat visitors.” Elizabeth’s case sheds light on the challenges that foreigners may encounter in Dubai, where even minor incidents can lead to protracted legal battles and significant personal and financial tolls.

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