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Women abused and detained in UAE accuse UK of 'complicity'

Lawyer for British woman held for more than 17 months describes 'shocking' lack of interest from British officials
People walk past Dubai's courts during a hearing on 4 April 2010 in the case of a British couple sentenced to a month in jail after being convicted of kissing in public in a restaurant (AFP)

Parents of a British woman detained in pre-trial detention in the UAE for 17 months have denounced the UK government's "complicity" in their daughter's continued incarceration.

They joined other women who have faced unfair trials, sexual assault and detention in the Gulf state in condemning the failure of the British government to adequately support them through their ordeals.

Speaking to a cross-party fact-finding session in London on Tuesday, lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher said that her client - who wished to be referred to as Woman A because of threats against her family - had been given no details of the claims against her since being detained in February 2020.

'The critical interlocutor here should be the UK government because Woman A is a UK national and regrettably we have had far more traction with groups in the UN and other states than with the UK itself'

- Caoilfhionn Gallagher, lawyer

She said the woman, a professional with two very young children, had likely been detained because of her human rights activism and had only been allowed to see her children for one 25-minute session, in December 2020.

"She has said to us that if she's not released she will die in prison of a broken heart because of the situation with her children," Gallagher told the session.

Gallagher added that throughout the process both the British embassy in Dubai and the UK Foreign Office (FCDO) had engaged in a "very deferential hands-off approach" with regards to her case.

"The embassy and the FCDO seem to have a policy of doing absolutely nothing," she said.

Middle East Eye has asked the FCDO for comment.

Her client, Gallagher said, had been arbitrarily detained, denied the right to a fair trial, with most of her hearings having taken place in Arabic, denied direct access to legal representation and subjected to other gross violations of her human rights.

It was therefore "shocking", she said, that the UK government's position had been that her detention was "in accordance with local UAE laws and procedures", which she said was in stark contrast to FCDO attitudes to other countries involved in the violation of human rights.

Gallagher said that the minister for the Middle East and North Africa, James Cleverly, had in September 2020 sent a letter to her client that suggested Woman A's children "could always go into detention with her" if she was worried about their development, despite the well-publicised poor conditions in UAE prisons.

"The critical interlocutor here should be the UK government because Woman A is a UK national and regrettably we have had far more traction with groups in the UN and other states than with the UK itself," she said.

Gallagher quoted Woman A's father as saying that the attitude of the UK government to his daughter went beyond merely "deferential" to being "complicit" in her situation.

'I have no hope of justice'

The UAE has hit the headlines several times in recent years after detaining and abusing British citizens.

Some have called for the UK government to adjust the travel advice for the UAE on the FCDO website to address the potential danger of arbitrary detention.

At present, the advice on the website warns that "showing sympathy for Qatar on social media or by any other means of communication is an offence" in the country. However, there is no suggestion that British citizens should avoid travel to the country, as there is with other countries considered risky.

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Also speaking at the session on Tuesday were Asa Hutchinson, who had her passport confiscated and was sentenced to three months in jail in absentia in the country, and Caitlin McNamara, who says she was sexually assaulted by a senior Emirati official while working in Abu Dhabi.

Both were highly critical of the UK government's handling of their cases and their unwillingness to risk relations with the UAE. 

In March, the two countries launched a sovereign investment partnership worth almost £1bn, which the FCDO said would "deepen existing UK-UAE trade and investment ties that were worth £32bn in 2019".

"I don't think women should be going over to the UAE to work until the government are clearer about the risks," said McNamara.

"Because of the remit of international law, I have no hope of justice… people with power and money have impunity."

Embassy officials, she said, responded to her claims against Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan - the UAE’s minister of tolerance - with "political answers". McNamara said on her return to the UK the FCDO did not contact her until she attempted to launch a prosecution through the British justice system.

"I trusted the UK and UAE government messaging that I was safe to work there as a woman - I now regret that," she said.

She added that she would be supportive of sanctions being levelled against her abuser, against whom she also launched a legal claim in April after the Crown Prosecution Service said they would not be pursuing the case.