U.S. College Student Sentenced To One Year In Prison Over Altercation With Dubai Airport Security

U.S. College Student Sentenced To One Year In Prison Over Altercation With Dubai Airport Security

A 21-year-old New York woman was sentenced to one year in prison by a Dubai court this week, following four months of legal limbo after an altercation with an airport security officer she was accused and convicted of “assaulting and insulting”.

Image: https://pixabay.com/photos/dubai-desert-burj-kalifa-emirates-2057583/

While going through security, a security officer asked the student, who recently had surgery, to remove a medical suit she was wearing, which provoked an argument.

The trial took several months to commence, then she was sentenced to a fine, which was appealed by the customs department. During the appeals trial, a court sentenced to tourist to one year in prison. However, the sentence was promptly (the following day) commuted, and the woman was deported to the U.S. on Tuesday night.

This situation has sparked attention in various media forums and local advocacy groups that deal with situations involving foreigners caught up in the UAE legal system.

As ABC reported, the 21-year-old was detained after the incident in July and has since spent her time in Dubai, awaiting trial.

A 21-year-old New York City college student who was recently sentenced to prison time in the United Arab Emirates over an altercation at a Dubai airport has been freed, an advocacy group said.

Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, a student at Lehman College in the Bronx, had been sentenced to one year in prison after being accused of “assaulting and insulting” Dubai International Airport customs officials, according to Detained in Dubai, an advocacy organization that supports foreign nationals who have been detained and prosecuted in the United Arab Emirates.

Her sentence has since been commuted and she boarded a flight home to New York late Tuesday night, the group said.

“The 21 year old is ecstatic to be returning to the US after five months of anguish,” Detained in Dubai said in a statement.

De Los Santos had been detained in Dubai since July, according to Detained in Dubai. She was traveling back to New York from a trip to Istanbul with a friend when she had a 10-hour layover in Dubai on July 14, the group said. While going through security, a security officer asked the student, who recently had surgery, to remove a medical waist trainer suit she wears around her waist, stomach and upper chest, Detained in Dubai said.

De Los Santos complied and repeatedly asked the female customs officers for help to put the compressor back on to no avail, according to Detained in Dubai. While calling out to her friend for help, she “gently touched” the arm of one of the female officers “to guide her out of the way” of the security curtain, De Los Santos told Detained in Dubai.

De Los Santos was detained for touching the female customs officer, signed paperwork in Arabic and was allowed to leave the airport, according to Detained in Dubai. Upon returning for her flight to the U.S., she was told she had a travel ban issued against her, the group said.

On Aug. 24, judges ordered her to pay a fine of 10,000 dirhams (about $2,700) but customs officials appealed the sentence, according to Detained in Dubai. She was sentenced to a year in prison, the advocacy group said on Monday.

“They either want her in jail or they want to pressure her into making a compensatory payment to them,” Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, claimed in a statement last month. “The government of Dubai should stop this type of corruption by banning government employees from being able to accept out-of-court settlements for criminal complaints,” but does not mention the risk of detention.

The State Department said earlier Tuesday they are “aware of the sentencing” of De Los Santos.

“The department is in communication with her and her family and we’re going to continue to monitor her case and be involved,” State Department principal deputy spokesperson Verdant Patel said at a press briefing Tuesday.

ABC News did not immediately receive a response from Dubai authorities seeking comment on the matter.

Prior to De Los Santos’ sentence being commuted, Detained in Dubai said the appeals process could take months and called for De Los Santos’ immediate release. The group also urged the State Department to revise its travel warnings to “include the risk of false allegations and extortion scams.” Currently the State Department’s advisory warns Americans to “exercise increased caution in the United Arab Emirates due to the threat of missile or drone attacks and terrorism.”

De Los Santos’ mother contacted Detained in Dubai after learning about Tierra Allen’s case, the group said. The Texas resident was charged in Dubai for allegedly verbally accosting a rental car agent in April and was issued a travel ban while awaiting trial, according to Detained in Dubai. Her criminal charges were ultimately dropped and the travel ban lifted, and she was able to return to the U.S. in August, according to Detained in Dubai.

I think this case is somewhat complicated or at least multi-faceted. Last year, 66 Million passengers used Dubai International Airport, and for people to get into legal trouble at the airport is something very much out of the ordinary unless the smuggling of goods is concerned (a very bad idea in the UAE).

Everything is in some way tied to the government. It’s highly surprising and unusual that a government agency is actually appealing the sentence a UAE court has given to a foreigner. Undoubtedly, the court knows how these cases are usually handled, meaning a monetary fine to resolve the case is a better outcome than having this turn into a prison sentence with diplomatic entanglements and bad PR. Yet they still accepted the appeal and turned a $2,700 fine into a one-year prison sentence that was then commuted. Wouldn’t it have been better to take the fine and then kick the person out?

That being said, it’s also a very bad idea to get into a heated argument with officials, use insulting language, and have any kind of bodily contact with them. When I read the article above describing the incident as a “gentle touch to GUIDE the officer out of the way” I can’t help but think that this isn’t telling the full story. There shouldn’t be ANY touch or push to remove an official out of your way.

What led to this situation was obviously that the passenger had medical needs that required her to wear the body suit. I’m not surprised the security staff ignored her request to get re-dressed as I imagine the entire conversation wasn’t exactly courteous. The correct way to handle this is to request her friend to help her get dressed in the same area, and if the officers refuse, ask for someone from the medical department to come to the checkpoint and tend to the situation. It’s always possible to file a complaint later.

I’m surprised this traveler took a multi-segment flight to Turkey with a stopover in Dubai during the summer, right after a surgery that still requires her to wear a stabilizing bodysuit. I’d think the discomfort of both traveling on the plane and dealing with the scorching heat under these conditions would be too much to bear.

Image: https://pixabay.com/photos/dubai-sunset-3188864/

Signing official, legal paperwork in a language you don’t understand is ALWAYS a bad idea. She should have known that she was about to get in trouble this way and better have requested legal assistance. Definitely contact the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi or the U.S. Consulate in Dubai to open up a case and have an ACS representative take a look at the matter.

The UAE is widely known as a rather liberal Arabic country where it’s possible to party, drink alcohol, and move relatively freely, but there are many shadows to that as well. Laws are applied very arbitrarily, and while small things are often ignored, once someone gives authorities a reason to throw the book at them, it’ll turn ugly in a hurry.

In the past, we’ve repeatedly reported on cases where UAE travelers got caught up in legal trouble. Most of the time, this involves intoxication to some degree that leads to other situations, such as fights.

Police are not checking tourists in the streets of Dubai or at the airport if they have consumed alcohol. This comes into play if someone reports you or if the authorities want an easy way to charge you (perhaps other offenses are more difficult to prove) when you have had adult beverages without a license.

UK In UAE Warns: Get That Alcohol License & You Can Be Arrested If Transiting Under Influence Of Alcohol

As of January 2023, these licenses are free of charge in Dubai:

Dubai Suspends 30% Alcohol Tax & Free Liquor Licenses

These licenses are (strictly speaking) required to drink onboard Emirates/Etihad flights, too. So before you kick back on your future flight, you might want to reconsider how much you can take before arriving in Dubai.

There are more sinister cases as well. Over the years, there have been several cases of women who were sexually assaulted and who were then criminally charged for illicit sex after reporting it to the police. It goes without saying that the UAE also takes offense to anything same-sex relations-related, despite A LOT of both locals and foreign expats living a more or less secret life in the country as far as this is concerned.

Coming back to the case on hand, usually, foreigners who get charged and convicted will quickly be pardoned and then immediately deported from the country, as happened in this case. The UAE doesn’t want any diplomatic row and international attention over more or less irrelevant cases.

So unlike it’s a significant crime, one won’t languish there for a long time. Nevertheless, the process of staying there during the travel ban and paying for lawyers is expensive. This case alone cost ~ US$50,000 for four months. Yet, I still think the description of the incident at the airport didn’t tell the full story, and the passenger acted more aggressively than described.

There might be more we hear from this person once she is back on U.S. soil. Hopefully, not some tirade about how unfair all this was because she sure did enough to provoke this whole episode.


A U.S. citizen was arrested and held in Dubai, UAE, for four months after she had an altercation with a security guard during a Dubai Airport stopover following a body search. The incident allegedly involved the use of verbal insults and touching/shoving one of the officers. As a result, the passenger was convicted to spend one year in prison, which was almost instantly commuted and then followed up on with a deportation.

Assessing the legal situation in the UAE can be really confusing. You can get arrested for having alcohol in your system once you step out from one of these venues or even being in transit at the airport. This case is easier to assess, though: You simply don’t insult or push officials around, she must have been out of her mind!

I just keep reminding readers that they need to keep their guard up in UAE and not let their hair down too much. These more traditional countries request strict compliance with the law and respect other people (especially government officials) during interactions. I’m definitely not saying that the UAE are a blueprint for a fair justice system, but maybe we (in the West) should take a little cue from them when it comes to dealing with other people and start treating each other with a bit more decency again.

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