Seven members of senior cabin crew at the Dubai-based airline Emirates have been accused of plotting a Hezbelloh-directed terror attack in the city. All seven of the accused men are of Lebanese origin and have each lived and worked in Dubai as flight attendants and pursers for more than 15 years. Prosecutors claim the men were part of a Hezbollah terror cell who had already carried out a mock attack in preparation for a bomb assault on a “vital facility” in Dubai.
In court documents, prosecutors claimed the men had used their positions to collect sensitive security information from the UAE’s airports. Authorities accuse the men of being agents for Hezbollah which is a Lebanese political party and militant group. Hezbollah is outlawed in the UAE and classed as a terrorist organisation.
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) which is headquartered in New York City claims the Emirati authorities arbitrarily detained the seven flight attendants for more than a year. They say the men were arrested in December 2017 and held without charge in an unknown location until their trial started in mid-February this year. Only at this point did officials list the crimes the men were accused of committing.
Family members of the accused say the seven employees of Emirates, and one other man who is also of Lebanese origin have been “held in prolonged solitary confinement and denied access to their families, legal counsel, and the evidence against them.”
Human Rights Watch says that “at least three detainees told family members that state security forces forced them to sign statements while blindfolded and under duress, and one said they forced him to sign a blank paper.”
Even after the trial started, six of the accused are still said to be held in solitary confinement, three others remain incommunicado with family members. The HRW report into the men’s treatment explains:
“His teeth were all broken, and his ear looked mangled,” a family member said of one detainee. “He said it was from all the beatings he got to the face. He said that after he fell unconscious one time, they continued to kick him. For five days, he wasn’t allowed to sit or to sleep. He was chained and his eyes were covered. Until this day, when he leaves his cell, he is blindfolded.”
Not all the men have been physically abused but there are a number of other accusations:
- One man was forced to sign a statement while chained and blindfolded
- Another was forced to sign a blank piece of paper – possibly as a confession
- None of the men’s lawyers has been allowed to meet with them
- The accused and their lawyers have been denied access to case material and evidence
- The men have been subjected to unspecified psychological abuse
Clearly, the crimes these eight men have been accused of are really serious but human rights organisations are concerned they have no hope of a fair trial.
“Time and again, the UAE has used the spectre of terrorism to justify its utter lack of respect for the rule of law,” explains Sarah Leah Whitson, who’s the director of operations in the Middle East for Human Rights Watch.
“By not respecting the rights of the defendants to a fair trial, the Emirati authorities are indicating that they have already decided the outcome.”
The case against the men continues and while they most definitely should be presumed innocent until proven guilty this case does raise some serious concerns about security vetting. It wasn’t until last year that authorities in Dubai started requiring criminal records checks for foreign workers seeking employment in the emirate.
Airport and airline workers are normally subjected to stringent pre-employment checks, including checking names against terror watch lists. Even convictions for minor offences like theft could preclude a potential airline employee from being offered a job. Until recently, authorities in Dubai didn’t have access to this type of information.
It’s a concerning loophole that has mostly been filled but there are obviously lots of expatriate workers working at airlines like Emirates who have never faced these kinds of checks.
In 2011, a former employee of British Airways was convicted of preparing acts of terrorism against the airline. Rajib Karim, who was an IT worker, was found guilty of making plans to access BA’s servers and delete massive amounts of mission-critical data. Meanwhile, a former baggage handler at Delta Air Line was convicted of being part of a gun-smuggling ring in which he would smuggle guns into restricted areas so that they could be transported to New York City and then be illegally sold.
Unlike most other countries, many airport’s in the United States don’t require all employees to go through the type of mandatory and sometimes evasive security screening that passengers are subjected to.