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Thu 28 Feb 2008 05:44 PM

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Hot seat: Catherine Wolthuizen

The Fair Trials CEO discusses travellers being arrested for possession of banned substances at Dubai Airport.

Hot seat: Catherine Wolthuizen
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Fair Trials International launched a report recently highlighting what they say is a surge in the number of travellers being arrested for possession of banned substances at Dubai Airport. Jeremy Lawrence spoke to the charity's Chief Executive Catherine Wolthuizen to find out more.

What issues are you trying to highlight in your report?

We are trying to warn people about what has been reported to us. It appears that Dubai airport is using highly sensitive new scanning equipment. We've been told that people arriving in Dubai or transiting through the airport are being selected and taken off through scanners that detect extremely small amounts of banned substances. Very thorough examinations are then made of clothing and luggage. If anything suspicious is found, it is sent to a laboratory. If the results are positive, people are being prosecuted and where possession is proven, it seems they are mostly receiving four-year jail sentences.

What is the process after detention?

What seems to be happening is that where the court finds proof of possession of a banned substance, the mandatory four year sentence is handed down, no matter what the quantity. Then some people are fortunate enough to be included in pardons at the amnesties that accompany special occasions in the UAE. As far as we know, there are no guarantees as to who gets that, or what circumstances will add to them being included on a list for clemency.

How many people are you in contact with in Dubai?

At the moment it's around 20. We deal with people who have been detained and are facing the trial process. We know that there are also a number of other people who have been through that justice process and have been convicted.

You talk about the case of Keith Brown who was sentenced to four years in prison after, according to your report, ‘0.003 grams of cannabis was found in the tread of his shoe by Dubai customs officials.'

In our view, this is not a case of someone being in possession; he stood on something and it has been caught in the tread of his shoe. Someone coming from a part of the world where cannabis use is much more prevalent might not be a user but could have traces on their clothes. The only advice we can give to people is that if they think they might have come into contact with any banned substances, they should thoroughly examine their clothes before travelling.

Have you tried to contact the authorities here for clarification?

We wrote to the UAE embassy in the UK before we issued our warning, advising them of what we were going to do. We also asked that they upgrade the advice on their website and to explain their approach to the enforcement of their drug laws.

We've not yet had a response.

Surely it's the right of the authorities to enforce the laws as they see fit?

Of course. But we feel that it is appropriate for them to warn travellers of the laws - and also to tell people which substances are banned. The list contains many medications that are more readily available in other countries and wouldn't necessarily be accompanied by a prescription or a doctor's letter. The substances include things that people would not consider to be illegal, such as the poppy seeds used for baking.

Talking of which, you report the case of a Swiss man who you say is ‘currently serving four years after three poppy seeds were found on his clothes by customs officials at Dubai airport. He had bought and eaten a bread roll at Heathrow before flying to UAE.' Have you spoken to him?

He was actually sharing a cell with one of our clients and that's how we were advised of the case. We have tried in vain to get him to contact us to give us more information.

So you aren't aware of the full facts?

In our view it was valid to include the case as part of our warning, because it's certainly not something that anyone would consider as a risk, particularly if they are from a European country.

You mention other pharmaceutical products that people might not be aware of, such as Prozac.

Yes, Prozac is on the list of banned substances - you would definitely need to carry a prescription or a doctor's letter for that. The list of narcotics - which you are banned from carrying full stop - is reasonably short, but it contains things like Codeine above 30mgs and Ritalin. These drugs are commonly prescribed in many other countries.

What is your plan for the future?

We'll keep warning people. This is not a campaign to change the drug laws in the Emirates. This is a campaign to advise people of what those drug laws are and how they can appropriately protect themselves against arrest and a prison sentence. It's for others to decide what they think about those drug laws; we're not a drug reforms charity.

To view the Fair Trials list of banned substances, log on to www.fairtrials.net

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

Fred 12 years ago

Lets not have these bleeding hearts telling the UAE what to do. The west is far too soft on drugs. Illegal means illegal, whatever the quantity. I applaud the UAE's stand on drugs.

Glory 12 years ago

Totally agree Fred. ZERO tolerance means just that. ZERO. These people saying "I forgot I had it in my pocket" I mean, come one. What kind of idiots do they take the UAE legal system for? Do the crime - do the time. Simple. Lucky for them Dubai doesn't have the same penalty as Thailand - the death penalty.

Jason Goldsmith 12 years ago

BTW am a Banker, so agree in principle with the first two comments, but consider the following - sure, chuck drug peddlers and addicts in jail, then deport them... but on the flip side my girlfriend is on Prozac, and stands the chance of going to jail? Right, I'll make sure she has her doctor's prescription before she flies over to visit me, but I couldn't believe the stories I heard over the weekend, until I read this article to confirm its all true...amazing!? Scary? Yes! The Dept. of Health Officials in Dubai are at risk of giving the emirate a bad name. Do they not understand or know the difference between drug users or peddlers, versus people on medication? Its time common sense prevailed in your courts. Otherwise, "goodbye Dubai, and hello somewhere else."

Joe Simm 12 years ago

Poppy seeds? Insane no matter how you look at it.