A 21-year-old New York student who recently lost her father and is still recovering from invasive stomach surgery has been trapped in Dubai for several months and still doesn’t know when she might be allowed to go home after she was subjected to “degrading, painful and humiliating” searches at Dubai International Airport.
Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos has already been fined nearly $3,000 by a Dubai court for allegedly touching a customs officer at the airport, but she now faces an agonizing wait while the Dubai customs department appeals her sentence.
A British charity which is helping Elizabeth says the appeals process could be a way to pressure her into paying a compensatory payment to the alleged victim.
“Tourists have long been exploited by locals who seek to punish and extort them as a secondary form of income,” explains Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, which specializes in assisting foreign nationals trapped in Dubai’s complicated and opaque judicial system.
“Compensating complainants only exacerbates the situation,” Stirling continued. “The government of Dubai should stop this type of corruption by banning government employees from being able to accept out-of-court settlements for criminal complaints”.
Elizabeth was detained in Dubai on July 14 as she traveling home after a holiday in Istanbul with a friend. The two friends booked a connecting flight via Dubai and had to pass through airport security before their connecting flight.
It was at this point that Elizabeth was made to feel “violated” when two plain-clothed women in local dress forced her to remove a medical waist trainer suit that her surgeon had asked her to wear to aid her recovery from her recent stomach surgery.
Elizabeth says the two women laughed at her as they removed the compressor in a “rough” way that was “hurting her swollen wounds”. After removing the compressor, they refused to aid Elizabeth in putting it back on and instead “would just laugh and stare” at her.
In desperation, Elizabeth called out to her friend to help, but one of the women was standing in the way of her view. By this point, Elizabeth was “half-naked, humiliated and in a state of panic and misery” when she “gently touched” the arm of one of the women “to guide her out of the way” while she called out for her friend to help.
A male officer allowed Elizabeth’s friend to help her get dressed but her “nightmare” was only just beginning.
Elizabeth was detained for several hours while the woman she touched filed a criminal complaint against her and was then forced to sign paperwork written in Arabic.
She was eventually released from the airport, and after several hours, she returned to catch another flight to the United States. It was only at this point that she discovered she had a travel ban prohibiting her from leaving the United Arab Emirates.
Elizabeth was forced to go from hotel to hotel while she awaited the outcome of her case, and on August 24, a Dubai court sentenced her to pay a AED 10,000 fine (USD $2,770).
The Dubai Customs Department, however, appealed that sentence, and Elizabeth remains trapped in the UAE until the case is fully resolved
The next court hearing isn’t scheduled until October 23, and in the meantime, Elizabeth’s university classes have started in her absence, her apartment is coming up for renewal, and she hasn’t been able to return to work.
“She is under the most incredible stress, which is impacting her physical and mental health, disrupting her entire life and scarring her long term,” Stirling said on Sunday. “This is simply no way to treat visitors. It’s outrageous”.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.