A British woman is facing jail time in Dubai for swearing in a WhatsApp message - what happened

In Dubai, the use of swear words on social media and messaging platforms is a crime (Photo: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

A woman from the UK is reportedly being held in Dubai, and is facing up to two years in prison, for swearing at her flatmate in a WhatsApp message.

She had lived in the UAE since 2018, and was relocating back to England to start a new job. The woman had already shipped all of her belongings home, and her visa is set to expire next week.

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The unnamed human resources manager had attempted to board a flight from Dubai International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport when she was stopped by Emirati police.

She was then informed that her flatmate had filed a police complaint against her, over the use of a swear word in a private WhatsApp message.

According to the campaign group Detained in Dubai (DID), the argument on WhatsApp had occurred several months ago

The woman is now facing up to two years in jail, or a fine of 250,000 dirhams (£52,000).

In Dubai, the use of the expletive “f**k”, and other verbal abuse, is considered a crime, as the word “disgraces the honour of the modesty” of a person, according to Article 373 of the UAE Penal Code. The use of swear words on social media platforms or messaging apps, like WhatsApp, is also considered a breach of cyber law.

‘This is a nightmare’

Speaking to The Sun, the woman said: “I can’t believe what my flatmate has done - she has been so spiteful. I pleaded with her to withdraw the complaint but she said, “This is a criminal case”.

“I’ve never been in trouble. I’m shocked I’ve been criminalised for a private exchange.”

She added that she has begged the police for help, but “they just don’t understand”.

Speaking via DID, the woman said: “This is like the nightmare all over again at the thought of losing my job.

“They cannot send a report until forensics compiles a report of my phone (even though I said I said the world and did not deny it, the prosecutor still needs that apparently), but no-one seems to know when that report will be done.

“I call every day. I’ve told them that I have no apartment and no job here and no money and that my visa expires 12 Feb - they just don’t understand. I’m banging my head against a brick wall. No one cares.”

‘A terrifying situation for anyone to face’

DID CEO Radha Stirling, who is representing the woman, said: “This is a terrifying situation for anyone to face. She had to attend several different police stations, where staff have limited English and communication is difficult.

“Every officer seemed to have a different take on what would happen to her, how long it would take and if she’d be allowed to go. Most people find this experience traumatising.

“The police confiscated her passport and her mobile phone to gather evidence. The police took the woman’s statement which admitted the rude word, but they still feel the need to process her phone through their forensic department, a process in itself, that can take weeks or months.

“Nothing is clear and nothing is logical. If she’s admitted the crime in in her statement, do they really need to drag her through a lengthy evidence gathering process?”

Stirling explained that DID have approached the British consular office for assistance, and the UAE's Ambassador to Britain to investigate the situation.

“Without intervention, the woman is likely to spend months in the UAE, awaiting judgement which may or may not be a prison sentence,” Stirling added.

‘Cybercrime Laws pose biggest risk to visitors’

Stirling said: “When the UAE first published their Cybercrime Laws, we realised they were the single biggest risk to visitors to the country.

“The broadness in scope essentially criminalised everyone, and gave practically limitless sentencing discretion to judges.

“A private WhatsApp message to a friend, colleague, or ex partner can land you in jail. Even more unimaginable is the extraterritorial element.

“You do not even have to be in the UAE when you send the message. This is extremely dangerous for visitors to the country.”