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  • Writer's pictureDetained in Dubai

Mentally ill American stroke victim "held hostage" in Dubai over missed debt instalments

Better days. David teaching at the American University in the UAE

David Oliver, an American former university professor is a stroke victim with mental health issues. David lost his job teaching in the UAE and was left unable to keep up his loan payments. Now, at the age of 62, he has no money to pay, is unable to get another job in the UAE (ironically because of the police case against him for missing loan payments), and forbidden to leave the UAE ever again.

David from Cincinnati Ohio enjoyed life in the UAE. He had a teaching position at the American University there for several years. David took out a loan to move his wife to the USA in anticipation of his contract ending. She was making payments on the loan from a US account that David’s money was going into.

Before the contract ended, David was terminated following an argument with an Emirati co-worker. David flew for a short term contract in another nearby country, then returned to Dubai ready to pack up his own things and return to his wife in the United States. On returning to Dubai airport, he was arrested for non payment of debts.

David was surprised to find that his wife had not been making payments on the loan. When he contacted her, she told him that not only had she not been paying, but she that she was also leaving him. She severed all communication with David and left him to deal with the Dubai banks. David found that she had cleared their USA joint bank account too.

David needed to get another job and restructure the loan, but the Sharjah Islamic Bank would not allow this. They insisted on all the missed payments being paid immediately, which he was unable to do.

The police case the bank had placed against David for missed payments meant that he could not get a new work visa. So in line with UAE law, the Sharjah Islamic Bank was preventing David from earning the money he needed to pay them.

David was about to find out that UAE banks believe that imprisoning a debtor is the safest way to get their money. UAE Bank boss Abdulfattah Sharaf openly admits that Dubai banks hold debtors in jail rather than help them to restructure payments, because the banks believe that friends or family will eventually come to the debtor’s aid and pay the debts for them. The policy has lead to much of the world’s banking community condemning the practice of what is essentially ‘taking the debtor hostage’.

David’s passport was confiscated and remains so until the loan is paid in full. As he is not allowed to work in the UAE or leave the UAE to work elsewhere, this can never happen.

David’s sister Beverly fears for his safety, health and even his life. “He is bi-polar and confused, He has had a mini stroke since being in jail and can’t afford treatment or medication. He can’t speak to me on the phone without slurring his words,” Beverly tells us. “He was doing very well. He was married, working hard in a good job. But the stress of all these misfortunes at once has hit him hard. David has tried to take his own life before and he sounds so down that I fear for his safety again.”

Confused. David's health has declined and family members fear for his life.

"David has already been jailed for 2 months, then held for another 7 months in a primitive mental hospital," continues Beverly. "During the time in prison he was subjected to awful violence. Another prisoner even stole his front teeth implants. He is mentally ill anyway and now trying to deal with the effects of a stroke. He has been told he can not return to the USA until his debt is paid, With the crazy interest and collection agency fees, the amount claimed has risen to USD $100,000. Our family doesn't have anything like that kind of money and we have been told that David will soon be sent back to prison and stay there for good, or until the debt is paid in full.

"We miss him terribly. This is a death sentence for a mentally ill man and stroke victim. I just wish our government would do something to help, but all the embassy has done is give contact details for lawyers we can't afford. It’s as though the US government was more interested in trade deals than the safety of its citizens in Dubai."

Radha Stirling, CEO of the British based NGO Detained In Dubai who is representing David, released the following statement: "David is a mentally ill stroke victim with zero chance of paying the debt. He took the loan in good faith, but his circumstances changed beyond his control. If the UAE had operational bankruptcy laws, David would likely be home already. While there has been a lot of discussion over the past few years about implementing modern bankruptcy regulations, movement so far has been ineffective.

"Unfortunately we have many similar cases in the UAE with people who can neither pay their debts nor leave Dubai to seek employment elsewhere. We are dealing with a number of people who are looking at spending the remainder of their lives in prison, some in the latter part of their lives who have no access to medical attention. Even the people currently outside of prison are not allowed to work and when whatever money they had runs out, they are forced to beg for food or rely on charity from others.

"Holding a debtor hostage in the hope they have a wealthy relative to bail them out is both immoral and unfair.

"The UAE leadership needs to intervene and show compassion for David and other helpless debt hostages. The recent discussions in respect of eliminating prison sentences for bounced cheques under AED 200,000 is a step in the right direction, but so far nothing is being done to solve this very common catch 22 situation. The Australian CEO of Emirates NBD has spoken openly of his opinion that the criminalisation of debt needs to end, as has Essam Al Tamimi, the CEO of one of the largest law firms in the Middle East. If the UAE wants to continue to attract skilled labour and foreign investment, it needs to modernise its laws and practices to protect people against imprisonment for financial matters. The banks themselves lend far more unsecured money than their western counterparts because they have the option to jail anyone who does not keep up payments. It works for them and while they are profiting from the situation, are unlikely to voluntarily change their practices.

"Foreigners should keep in mind when they are offered employment in the UAE, they will likely end up opening a credit card or loan facility, largely due to living costs requiring up-front payment. Landlords usually request a year’s rent in advance for example. If at any time, an employee is made redundant or dismissed for health or other reasons outside of the employee’s control, the bank will be immediately notified and the employee will need to pay the loan facility in full. This is where so many foreigners have run into problems.

"When I spoke to David, he had clearly been emotionally damaged by the time in prison and the separation from his family. He could not see any way out but holds hope that he will be reunited with his family again soon.”

Extra information as follows:

  • David has a daughter, who lives in Atlanta and is 31;

  • David is currently out of jail and staying in a cheap hostel in a poor area of Dubai. His sister is spending the last of her life savings to keep him there and fed;

  • When Beverly’s money runs out, David will be forced to live on the streets and beg for food;

  • David is not getting any treatment or medication for his mental health issues or the effects of his stroke;

  • David has trouble walking, very poor short term memory and has trouble talking

  • When David was arrested at the airport the security staff were gleefully shouting “look, we got an American”;

  • David presented his medical records to the judge and Sharjah Islamic Bank. They laughed at him (actually, not figuratively);

  • David hired a lawyer, but was advised to sneak out of the country via Oman. David is not in any kind of state to be making such a dangerous journey;

  • When David was arrested at the airport, they kept his belongings. The US embassy promised to retrieve them but did not do so. The airport later auctioned his belongings;

  • David has had three court hearings and each time the result has been the same. He was ordered to, “pay the banks or go to jail.”


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