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A writer’s ordeal in Dubai

SHOWCASE | September 20, 2011

In August 2009 journalist Mark Townsend got a phone call giving him two hours to get to the Dubai Criminal Investigation Department. The call immediately reminded him of a science fiction story in which an ordinary life unraveled, and indeed, it was the start of a long, deepening eddy for him, as he was charged with a crime – writing an offensive blog – that he didn't commit.

An earlier version of this story appeared in the Index on Censorship.

By Mark Townsend

August is a cruel month of extremes in Dubai as triple digit temperatures connive with intense levels of humidity each day a mad dash to the next air-conditioned space. August 2009 exposed a new kind of extremity that continues to occupy every waking moment of my life. For twenty five months I have been subsumed in Dubai's labyrinthine legal system for a 'crime' I did not commit. The crime: libel, a criminal offence in the United Arab Emirates carrying a maximum two-year prison sentence, a fine, combination of both and If you happen to be a foreigner the option of deportation.  For twenty two of those months the authorities withheld my passport. Twenty two months, high, low, guilty, innocent, two meetings with the public prosecutor, nine court appearances, five adjournments and a tacit use of tampered evidence.

On the 11th August my mobile phone rang, uncharacteristically I stepped out of a meeting. "Is that Mark Townsend? Please come to Dubai CID  (Criminal Investigation Department) within two hours. A joke surely. Momentarily Philip Dick's science fiction classic 'Time Out of Joint' and theme of watching ordinary lives unravel flashed through my mind. Staring blankly down the anonymous corridor a feeling of detachment engulfed yet I remember being aware of people going about their daily office routines. For several hours I was held and questioned over a blog that according to the CID officer contained defamatory statements following a complaint filed on the 5th June 2009 against me for libel and misuse of the telecommunications system.

"You wrote about sex," the CID officer said in a reference to quid pro quo allegations of sexual harassment in the blogs. The offices of Dubai CID are not a pleasant place and very intimidating. Each door I walked past ratcheted up the tension as the sign sent my imagination into overdrive. 'Narcotics', 'Deportion' (presumably that meant deportation or something more sinister?) and 'Cybercrime.' The complaint said I had written a blog or number of blogs and the clinching evidence for the alleged crime was the cyber handle of the author – Msend.  "It looks like your name," the CID officer said damningly. After the initial interrogation the officer took me upstairs for a statement. In the next room two women were shouting and screaming in equal measure. Prostitutes going to the shower I was informed.

I walked into another office where an officer languished behind a computer. "How are you?" he inquired. The three of us sat in silence for around 30 minutes achingly reminiscent of one of those clichéd movie scenes where the wall clock seems to tick gradually louder and louder. You could almost hear the supermarket muzak of 'Some Enchanted Evening' as banality gently washed through the scene. The door opened and an obviously more senior individual entered. He introduced himself as a major in the CID and would help with my statement. Tall, distinguished, possessing excellent English he sought to reassure.

"You're a journalist but also an editor," he noted. One officer spoke in Arabic, the major translated and the other entered my replies. I vehemently denied any knowledge or involvement with the blogs but it was clear I was being set up for reasons I could not fathom. Nevertheless during questioning I challenged them to trace the IP address of the offending blogs as I knew it would immediately exonerate me. It is well known fact Dubai has some of the most sophisticated technology and computer forensic equipment that money can buy and recently exemplified by the skillful reconstruction of the assassination plot by alleged Mossad agents of militant Hamas member Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room. 

The statement was read back to me and again the major translated. The statement was in Arabic and I was instructed to sign it. Before signing I endorsed the statement 'I do not understand the contents, read or write Arabic.' The major then asked me for my passport adding the CID would confiscate my laptop and an officer would accompany me to my apartment where I could handover my passport. I refused and he reluctantly agreed to give me two hours to call the embassy and return with my passport. 

The phone rang interminably at the British Embassy but finally the consular official advised me to surrender my passport. "They will jail you if you don't," she sniffed. I returned to the CID offices and parting with my passport brought home the gravity of the situation with an intensity that is difficult to express. The major escorted me to the exit, a consistently articulate, courteous imposing figure. He added I could not have a copy of my statement but provided me with a letter confirming the CID had confiscated my passport. "In case you are detained anywhere else," he smiled.

From 2005 until 2009 I served as business editor of a well known daily broadsheet in Dubai. Towards the end of my tenure Dubai government acquired a thirty percent stake in the newspaper with the intention of re-launching it as the preeminent daily. The run-up to the re-launch was an exhausting seven-day commitment.

In November 2008 I headed a UAE media delegation to Pakistan which shockingly coincided with the terrorist atrocities in Mumbai. Our delegation gained access to an important figure in the military establishment in Islamabad. The story I drafted was returned to me to look at a different angle not an unusual occurrence but for it to last 10 days was surprising. I left the newspaper in February 2009 and after the demands of editing a daily broadsheet a new freelance life in broadcast, digital and print roles beckoned. In April 2009 a series of blogs critical both of the government and management appeared on a dubious website. I say dubious because investigations revealed the site has a number of cases filed against it in the US, is under Latvian ownership and appears to be hosted in Canada. The blogs in question are apparently not written by a native English language speaker, a point echoed by a number people supporting my case, including a linguistics expert. 

According to colleagues my detention and questioning by Dubai CID was a nothing other than a warning shot across the bows and would amount to nothing. After two weeks I called the major. He was friendly enough. I enquired whether he had carried out an IP trace. "Not yet, but don't worry we know you did not do this," he soothingly replied.  I returned to the CID offices and they said I could take my laptop as the forensics analysis was complete. "You are right we did not find anything, just forget about this. Do you know who it could be?"

A few days later I went to collect my laptop but the officer said they could not return it as they had sent my file and passport to another police station. At the beginning of October I appointed the first of three local lawyers. A former public prosecutor he suggested I wait for the police to call. During this time I was in regular contact with Reporters Without Borders who advised me to keep a low profile. A few odd things happened. RWB called me one weekend saying they were a bit worried. Why, I asked. "You have not replied to our e-mail," they stated.  I switched e-mail addresses but bizarrely the missing e-mails appeared in my original mailbox several days later. I had no fixed line connection at home preferring to use my mobile. During two international calls the caller said, "Do you want to answer the other phone that is ringing?" Shortly after RWB spoke with my lawyer he became distant and appeared uncomfortable with my case. I then asked the British Embassy to call the major and find out the location of my file. I outlined everything that happened including the major's comforting comments. The embassy located the file at the police station where the complaint was originally filed. What about his comments? "He just wanted you not to worry."

The police station in question denied any knowledge of receiving the file and I returned to the CID office. "No we have sent it," and a game of cat and mouse ensued for three weeks until I decided to demand to see the officer in charge at the police station. I knocked and entered. The colonel was in a meeting and his eyes suggested something unpleasant would happen if I did not immediately leave. I waited several hours when he emerged seemingly calmer. "Follow me." This particular police station is infamous in Dubai folklore and a hub for crime investigation. At the end of a long corridor I could see the bars of a jail. A chill rippled through me as the scene fell into slow motion as we strode towards station's penitentiary before the officer turned sharply right into an office of lesser mortals. "Find his file," he directed. They did. A refrain I would hear repeatedly in the next few months was then recited. "Still under investigation."

On the 31st December 2009 my file was sent to the public prosecutor and I was subpoenaed for the first of two interviews on the 14th February 2010. By this time I had appointed a second lawyer. Several thousand UAE dirhams later he told me there was no need for him to accompany me to the interview with the prosecutor, in retrospect shockingly bad advice. After formally entering my plea of not guilty the prosecutor with the aid of a translator questioned me for three and half hours in minute detail in a very unpleasant cross examination. At the end of the interview the prosecutor's assistant gave me a parting remark. "May your god help you."

The prosecutor summoned me again on the 14th March for what was to be a significant and sinister development, this time greeting me as almost as a long lost friend. "Yes Mark, how are you?" He motioned me to his desk and spoke this time in English. "Is this the same blog?" turning the photocopy on his desk one hundred and eighty degrees towards me. I looked at the wording and superficially it was the same. "What about this," the prosecutor said as he pointed to the area where the cyber handle appeared. I froze. The copy was no longer annotated Msend but now contained the name mark townsend.  In order to strengthen the case someone changed the name in what appeared to be a crude Photoshop modification. Fortunately the original blog remains live to this day with the original cyber handle – Msend –  but the untidy lacuna provided incontrovertible proof of tampering with evidence. Simple deduction and comparison of the website and paper copy ought to have been enough to dismiss the complaint there and then. Until today I have not been able to establish the source or any reason it was accepted into evidence and the authorities have not investigated.

Without statutory limitations the public prosecutor took from the 14th March to the 15th August 2010 to formally bring charges and set my first hearing In Dubai first court of instance for the 29th September 2010. On the eve of the hearing CPJ a US organization advocating journalists' rights issued a public statement calling upon the UAE authorities to return my passport.

Dubai courts are frenetic, stressful and redolent of schadenfreude. Being categorized a de facto criminal is a cold and demeaning experience. All cases are heard together in a roll call absent of nomenclature but my numerous court appearances provided vivid memories. The case of the Filipino, the Indian, the Bangladeshi, the Nigerian, the Brit, the Canadian and the Chinese each paraded in handcuffs charged with bouncing a cheque. Their attempts to succinctly summarize how they fell foul of Dickensian debtor laws as the judge's attention ebbs away is enough to break your heart.

On five consecutive occasions the prosecution witness called by my lawyer failed to appear without fine or sanction from the court providing the basis for multiple adjournments. On three occasions I was told to expect judgment only for two further adjournments to occur. The mental build-up was mentally and physically exhausting, the swings in emotion so difficult for loved ones to cope with. Yet, it was the anticlimax which I personally found so hard. You have to come back up. First it is a leap but slowly it diminishes to a crawl as time passes and recurrence takes exacts its toll.

The 30th May 2011 was fixed as the date for judgment (again) but this time the lawyer told me to stay at home. That decision in itself made me apprehensive. 'If the judge passes a sentence I will immediately make an appeal if there is any custodial term," he said. According to him the verdict would be delivered in court between 10am and 1pm. The night before I was pondering the obliqueness that if tomorrow something goes wrong that if my lawyer fails to make the application or if somebody simply says no, then jail may beckon.

At 9.30am my landline rang. Can't be the lawyer he never calls on that number. It was. "Can you sit down," he quietly spoke. "It is good news you have been cleared of all charges." So that was it. The day that unfolded was probably one of the most emotionally draining I have ever experienced. I recall more than anyone my remarkable and steadfast partner Leah whom I have always tried to distance from the subterfuge yet she would not have any of it. Her elation and joy that day turned to a tsunami of love.

During twenty two months the tremendous support I received from the London based Media Legal Defence Initiative and International Senior Lawyers Project in New York guided me through the myriad twists and turns.  My case exemplifies it remains all too easy to stifle opinion in the Gulf.

Since my acquittal I continue to experience frustrations. After holding my laptop for almost two years the police now say they have lost it. Loss is one thing but losing a piece of evidence is unforgiveable. I am also fighting a large fine for overstaying my visa despite the fact the police held my passport for two years.

During the twenty two monthsbefore acquital I had a liberty of sort. It was a liberty spent in the shadows unable to work or leave the country but it provided ample time for reflection.

The challenges we face offer a chance to remind ourselves of what we have and that obstacles are often opportunities in disguise yet frequently we subconsciously imprison ourselves in a construct of our own making. It is not easy to open up and be vulnerable yet if we do not we remain confined. For the jail without bars is an invention of the ego and it is only by reaching through the bars of our imagined cell and grasping the hand on the outside that we can be truly free.


Victory is also bittersweet. Despite the implausible nature of the case the costs of defending myself have been expensive and an emotionally draining experience. Occasionally I have trawled through the wreckage but being reunited with my family has quickly restored my belief in the seed of opportunity that exists. Inevitably we have to return to law in the wake of my acquittal and my lawyer is preparing two cases which we hope will ensure justice is finally done. I remain committed to exposing whoever or whatever is behind an ordeal that has taken me professionally and personally to the brink.

I filed an official complaint with Dubai Police in July over the apparent loss of my laptop and in early September they formally acknowledged the loss. If this information been disclosed earlier it's probable the case would have been concluded much sooner.

After considerable negotiation and lobbying from the Embassy the immigration fine was finally waived.

The US Department of State mentioned my case in its 2010 Human Rights report on the UAE and through the good offices of the International Senior Lawyers Project in New York an update has been filed for the 2011 report (due April 2012).

I have returned to Dubai to assist my lawyer and try and resolve pending issues with the authorities. There is a sense of rebuilding in our lives and how best to use my experience to raise awareness. I continue to freelance for a number of organizations but I feel compelled to participate in an advocacy role. We ultimately plan to base ourselves in Asia where hopefully I can complete my book.

I look back on my case as something of a microcosm of the recent regional events. The hope provided by the Arab Spring appears all but dashed, replaced with a chaotic and more unstable region in which freedom of expression is likely to be the principal casualty. Indeed there is a danger that true freedom of speech is the preserve of shrinking number of somewhat privileged countries.

It should not happen.

Add End 

On September 22nd Dubai police informed me they would reimburse me the cost of the missing laptop.


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