Elizabeth Polanco de los Santos, a 21-year-old college student from New York, endured a two-month-long detention in Dubai, starting from her layover at the Dubai airport in July. Her ordeal began on July 14th when she was on her way back to New York City from Istanbul. Polanco, a business arts major at Lehman College in the Bronx, had stopped in Dubai for a connecting flight. It was during this layover that she encountered airport customs officers.
Officers allege "assaulting and insulting"
Customs officers instructed her to remove a waist compression device she was wearing following surgery. Polanco, feeling uncomfortable as the officers seemingly laughed at her surgical wounds, tapped one of the officers gently on the arm, seeking assistance to put the device back on, as reported by ‘Detained in Dubai’, an organization providing legal aid to foreigners in the United Arab Emirates.
However, the customs officers alleged that this contact was "assaulting and insulting." Consequently, Polanco was detained for hours as the officers filed a formal complaint against her, setting in motion a complex judicial process. After signing Arabic paperwork, Polanco was allowed to leave the immediate area. However, when she attempted to board her flight back to the US, airport authorities informed her that she had a travel ban imposed on her, preventing her from leaving the country.
On August 24th, judges ruled that Polanco must pay a fine of 10,000 UAE dirhams, equivalent to $2,772. She managed to pay the fine, but she was still not permitted to return to the US because airport customs officials appealed the verdict.
Radha Stirling, the head of ‘Detained in Dubai’, suspected that the purpose of the appeal was to pressure Polanco into an out-of-court settlement, potentially involving a more severe punishment.
According to a report by the Guardian, ‘Detained in Dubai’ reported that Polanco was told she could face up to a year in prison, along with accumulating $50,000 in legal and other expenses. However, she was also informed that if everything proceeded smoothly, she would only be detained until she could arrange a flight out of the UAE.
‘Detained in Dubai’ pointed out that regardless of the case's outcome, Polanco was preparing to be held in the UAE for approximately six more months, at her own expense, given the country's intricate appellate court process. The group believed that the best hope for a quicker and more favorable resolution would likely involve diplomatic intervention from the US.
However, on Tuesday, ‘Detained in Dubai’ announced that Dubai police had informed Polanco that she would be sent back to the US. She was taken for fingerprinting and was told she would be escorted to the airport, where her passport would be returned to her.
Polanco's mother eagerly awaited her daughter's return to New York, and Polanco herself expressed relief, saying, "I really need this all off my chest." ‘Detained in Dubai’ expressed gratitude to the American embassy and New York US Congressman Ritchie Torres for their support, although specific details of their assistance were not disclosed.
Despite Polanco's release, ‘Detained in Dubai’ called on the US State Department to reconsider its travel advisories to include warnings about the risk of false allegations and extortion scams. In a statement, Polanco shared that she and her friend had chosen Dubai over Paris for their layover, believing it would be a more modern and futuristic city. Her experience, however, turned into a traumatic ordeal, leaving her feeling violated and taken advantage of, compounded by the recent loss of her 44-year-old father.