A New York City college student intended just to have a layover in Dubai, but after a "hellish five months," she has only now been able to leave the United Arab Emirates.
As she was traveling back home from Istanbul, Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, a 21-year-old Lehman College student from the Bronx, allegedly touched a Dubai International Airport security officer's arm, leading to her detention there for months and a prison sentence of one year. But on Tuesday, she was cleared to return to New York, an advocacy group that represented her said.
"Elizabeth boarded her flight home to New York late Tuesday night," Detained in Dubai said. "The news that her sentence would be commuted was a welcome end to Elizabeth's hellish 5 months in Dubai that left her humiliated, traumatized and out of pocket U.S. $50,000."
De Los Santos had recently lost her father and underwent back surgery when she decided to join her friend on a trip to Istanbul, according to Detained in Dubai, which provides legal assistance to wrongfully detained foreigners in the United Arab Emirates. The pair chose Dubai as a layover city, thinking "it would be a more modern and futuristic city," the organization noted in a press release.
However, upon arriving there, the student's travels went downhill after a security officer told her to remove her post-surgery, doctor-mandated compressor that wrapped around much of her torso, which is "impossible" for her to take off and on herself, Detained in Dubai said.
She was ushered into a booth where female airport employees roughly removed the compressor covering her swollen wounds, the advocacy group said. Then when De Los Santos repeatedly "begged" for them to help her put it back on, they laughed at her, Detained in Dubai said.
De Los Santos then tried to reach for the booth's curtain to call for her friend, but an employee was standing in front of it.
"I gently touched her arm to guide her out of the way then desperately started crying to my friend for help," she told Detained in Dubai.
Despite allowing the friend in to help, officers told De Los Santos she was now detained for "touching the female customs officer." She was kept in the room for hours while the officer filed a complaint against the 21-year-old, made her sign Arabic paperwork then later told her there was a travel ban against her.
On Aug. 24, judges ordered De Los Santos to pay a 10,000 AED (about $2,700) fine before allowing her to head home, but after paying the fine, customs officials appealed, keeping her in Dubai for more months.
Meanwhile, she was missing months of work, school and doctor's appointments scheduled every other day, Detained in Dubai said.
Even though her year-long sentence was commuted Tuesday, Detained in Dubai CEO Radha Stirling wouldn't call it a "happy ending."
Elizabeth should never have been put through such an ordeal in the first place and her experience exemplifies that the #UAE is not safe for tourists and we advise @StateDept to reflect the prevalence of false allegations in their #UAETravelWarnings
— Radha Stirling - CEO @detainedindubai (@RadhaStirling) October 3, 2023
"She should have been home in May," Stirling said. "Instead, she has been left with the scars of an incomprehensibly traumatic experience for a young student, she has lost U.S. $50,000 that she will never be compensated for."
Stirling called for Dubai's government to forbid workers from being able to accept "out-of-court settlements for criminal complaints," as she believes the appeal following De Los Santos' fine was the customs officials' method to "extort" tourists for a secondary income.
This method was present in another case of Detained in Dubai, Stirling noted, which prompted De Los Santos' mother to reach out to the group when she heard about the prior case.
In April, Texas resident Tierra Allen was charged and issued a travel ban in Dubai after allegedly "slandering" a rental car agent after a car accident, Detained in Dubai said. She was able to return to the U.S. in August after she paid a fine and her criminal charges were dropped.
"Dubai's justice system is routinely misused to extort victims, and it's about time the U.S. State Department updates its travel warnings to reflect this common practice," Stirling said.
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