Bare, windowless rooms with a heavy iron-barred door; men packed side-by-side on the floor sometimes with not even enough room to turn over. Other rooms are so over-crowded that detainees sleep in a seated position. Such are the conditions in the Sharjah detention facility where people like British national Ali Issa Ahmed are held during investigations, and prior to sentencing, explains Detained in Dubai CEO Radha Stirling.
Ali, a chocolate factory worker from Wolverhampton, was vacationing in the UAE last month and attended a match during the Asian Cup when he was attacked by security personnel for wearing a Qatar team jersey. When he reported the assault to police, he was accused of falsifying the incident and causing his own injuries, and was immediately arrested. An ongoing political dispute between the UAE and Qatar has led the Emirates to criminalise any expression of sympathy with Qatar; so now Ali Issa Ahmed is facing potentially 15 years in prison.
“We have a very precise understanding of what Ali is going through,” she says, “The situation in UAE detention centres is bleak, and particularly so in Sharjah, a less developed emirate in the country with an even more regressive attitude towards human rights. Briton Lee Bradley Brown was killed in UAE custody in 2011, and that was in Dubai; Sharjah is even less developed and subject to less scrutiny. Conditions in detention are deplorable”
Comprised of roughly a dozen holding cells, conditions in the Sharjah police investigation headquarters’ detention facility are stark. Each room is bare with a thin, dirty cloth mat laid over the hard cement floor. Inmates are given a course blanket to sleep either on or under, and most choose to pull them over their heads to block out the fluorescent lights that are kept on 24 hours a day. People are constantly being brought in and moved out of the facility, but at any given time one cell may be packed with between 30-50 men. Each room has one cramped bathroom with a squat toilet that doesn’t flush.
“Detainees are locked in the cells at all times,” Ms Stirling says, “If they want to make a telephone call, they have to get the attention of a guard by shouting through the massive steel door that closes off the holding chamber. There is a payphone in the front office, so detainees have to purchase telephone cards if or when police make them available. Whether an inmate will be granted telephone access or not is entirely left to the discretion of the guards on duty. This same caprice applies to detainees’ access to medical care and visitation by friends and family.”
Detainees are all mixed together, regardless of what the charges against them may be. Violent criminals are placed alongside people accused of bouncing a cheque. By and large, the police do not speak English, and some can barely read or write even in their own language. Stirling says that harassment of inmates is standard. “Guardsare known to slam their truncheons against the bars of the cell doors throughout the night to prevent detainees from sleeping,” she explains, “detainees are regularly verbally abused by the police; berated, humiliated and insulted and subjected to racial and ethnic slurs. Physical abuse by the police is also reported by Sharjah detainees as commonplace.”
The stress of confinement in these conditions, combined with the anxiety of recent arrest and fears of what the future may hold, create an extremely tense, and often explosive environment. Arguments among detainees are common, and frequently erupt into physical fights.
“Ali Issa Ahmed went to the UAE for a holiday. He enjoyed a football match during the Asian Cup.” Stirling says, “Because he wore a Qatar team jersey, Ali was attacked, and because he reported that attack, he is in jail in extremely inhumane conditions. He is scheduled to appear in court on Monday, and is mostly likely going to be denied any access to communicate with the outside world before then. The British government needs to strongly object to what is happening to Ali, and urge the authorities in Sharjah to dismiss the fabricated case against him, and let him come home.”