Mark Townsend spent nearly two years fighting a bizarre libel case in Dubai. Here he tells of the legal limbo of the gulf city’s labyrinthine legal system
August is a cruel month of extremes in Dubai. Triple digit temperatures connive with intense levels of humidity, and every day there is a mad dash to the next air conditioned space. August 2009 exposed a new kind of extreme, that continues to occupy every waking moment of my life. For 22 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, or a combination of both. If you happen to be a foreigner there is a risk of deportation. For twenty two months the authorities withheld my passport. For twenty two months I was high and low, guilty and innocent. There were two meetings with the public prosecutor; nine court appearances; five adjournments and the tacit use of tampered evidence.
On 11 August my mobile phone rang. Uncharacteristically, I stepped out of a meeting. “Is that Mark Townsend? Please come to Dubai CID within two hours.” A joke, surely? Philip K Dick’s science fiction classic “Time Out of Joint”, with its theme of watching ordinary lives unravel, flashed through my mind. Staring blankly down the anonymous corridor a feeling of detachment engulfed me, 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. A complaint had been filed against me on the 5th June 2009 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 are very intimidating. Each door I walked past ratcheted up the tension as the signs 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. It was 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 said he would help with my statement. Tall and distinguished, he sought to reassure me in excellent English. “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 that Dubai has some of the most sophisticated technology and computer forensic equipment that money can buy. This was recently exemplified by the skilful reconstruction of the plot devised by alleged Mossad agents to assassinate 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 that 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. She was right. I returned to the CID offices. 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. He was consistently articulate, courteous and imposing. He added that 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 the 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, and I was asked to look at it from a different angle. This was 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 which were 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, and although it is under Latvian ownership it appears to be hosted in Canada. The blogs in question are apparently not written by a native English 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 as to 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 had 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.” A game of cat and mouse ensued. This went on for three weeks until I demanded to see the officer in charge at the police station. I knocked and entered. The colonel was in a meeting, and his eyes suggested that something unpleasant would happen if I did not immediately close the door and leave. I had been waiting several hours when he emerged, seemingly calmer. “Follow me.” This particular police station is infamous in Dubai folklore and is 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, and the scene fell into slow motion as we strode towards the 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 31 December 2009 my file was sent to the public prosecutor and I was subpoenaed for the first of two interviews on 14 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 this was 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 he greeted me almost as a long lost friend. “Yes Mark, how are you?” He motioned me to his desk and spoke in English this time. “Is this the same blog?” He turned 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 asked 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 had 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. I have still not been able to establish the source, or any reason why it was accepted into evidence, and the authorities have not investigated.
Since there were no statutory limitations, the public prosecutor took from 14 March to 15 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 organisation 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 categorised as 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 and charged with bouncing a cheque. Their attempts to succinctly summarise how they fell foul of Dickensian debtor laws as the judge’s attention ebbed away was enough to break your heart.
On five consecutive occasions the prosecution witness called by my lawyer failed to appear, providing the basis for multiple adjournments. He received no fine or sanction from the court. 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, and it was very difficult for loved ones to cope with my swings in emotion. 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 the recurrence exacts its toll.
We were informed 30 May 2011 was fixed as the date for judgment, 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 something went wrong the next day; that if my lawyer failed to make the application or if somebody simply said no, then jail might beckon.
At 9.30am my landline rang. “Can’t be the lawyer – he never calls on that number,” I thought. It was. “Can you sit down?” he spoke quietly. “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 those 22 months the support I received, from the Media Legal Defence Initiative and International Senior Lawyers Project in particular, guided me through the myriad twists and turns. I remain committed to exposing whoever or whatever is behind an ordeal that has taken me professionally and personally to the brink, but the prospect of financing a legal case is daunting. My case demonstrates that it remains all too easy to stifle opinion in the Gulf.
Since my acquittal I have continued 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.
In the months that have passed I have had a liberty of sort. However it was a liberty spent in the shadows, unable to work or leave the country, but there has been 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. Frequently we subconsciously imprison ourselves in a construct of our own making. For the jail without bars is an invention of the ego. 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.