Before Matthew Hedges was David Haigh: An Account of Torture and Detention in Dubai

Published November 29th, 2018 - 11:29 GMT
David Haigh is former Managing Director of Leeds United. (Al Bawaba)
David Haigh is former Managing Director of Leeds United. (Al Bawaba)

Interview by Hayder al-Shakarchi


The following interview is part of a series published by Al Bawaba News, exploring the viewpoints, convictions, partisanship and consensus that exists in Washington D.C. around Middle East issues.

This author of this series will speak to analysts, policymakers and experts in their own words. Our aim is to provide a sense of the discussions taking place in the world's most powerful capital. This does not in any way imply an editorial edorsement of the individuals or policy proposols put forward. Al Bawaba is indepenent and does not align with any existing political party or ideological group.

Hayder al-Shakarchi is an Arab-American journalist and an international news analyst based in Washington, D.C.



Four years before Matthew Hedges was wrongfully incarcerated for espionage by the UAE, David Haigh was unlawfully detained in the same authoritarian country for 22 months.

This is his story:

Al-Shakarchi: How were you detained in the UAE?

Haigh: “I was managing director of a top a Football club that was owned by some people in the UAE and Bahrain who I had worked for before and we ended up in a commercial dispute… They were supposedly selling the club to me, instead, they sold it to one of my investors and so we sued. Then, for a long period of time, they said to me, ‘Oh, don’t sue us, don’t do this, we’re brothers, just come here, you’ve worked for us for so long, you’re like family,’ and all this nonsense.

They sent me a first-class ticket, ironically. I got on a plane, flew there, went to my old apartment (which I hadn’t been to in nine months), went to the office, and was then arrested in the most ridiculous fashion. I wasn’t even told I was arrested! I just had some guy, with a cap on backwards, saying, ‘Come with me.’ He looked about 12! No arrest, no nothing like that, so I just assumed that it was something like a speeding ticket because I had been away from home, or just some minor case.

I get taken to the police station and then starts what I, now, can’t believe I actually went through.

Within an hour, I’m on the floor being kicked and beaten and they’re trying to get me to sign this false statement. For fifteen months, I was in a police station.. not even a jail, but a police station. I didn’t get any investigation at all so when it comes to arbitrary detention, that’s huge. It’s not just a few days, it’s 15 months of arbitrary detention in which they didn’t even say what I had been accused of doing. they just said, ‘You took money from your employer,’ but no detail, no investigation, no questioning, no nothing.”  


Al-Shakarchi: There was no questioning at all?

Haigh: “Well, they did question me… They questioned me about what football manager to buy for their local team, nothing relevant to the fact that they had kept me there for a year and a half. It’s a not-really-there mentality in which they’re just like, ‘Oh, it’s okay, we can do what we want. We’re Dubai, #1, this and that… Just wait there.’ It’s like how they felt with Matthew Hedges: ‘We’ll do what we want. We’re going to accuse him of something. We’re going to find him guilty. We’re going to ignore this. And then we’ll just let him go anyway.’ But then, they should realize that the world is looking at them thinking, ‘You give a man a life sentence one day, and then you let him out the next?”

Al-Shakarchi: Can you describe the events that led to your pardon?

Haigh: “I was quite lucky when they accidentally jailed a BBC journalist for some driving offense and the bail system was down, so he ended up staying the night. [When he returned to the UK], he wrote a story and used a picture of me that we managed to smuggle out, and I went from looking very chubby and fat in Leeds to essentially losing 66 kilos while I was there. I looked like a skeleton and that image, the fat-me and then the thin-me, shocks people. So there you go: Media pressure. All the sudden, they rush me through to see a prosecutor and all the prosecutor wants to do, bearing in mind that he’s kept me for 15 months, is talk about football and which football player the local team should buy. It’s just bizarre, I remember that. A couple of days later, the farce of a court, which is a couple of minutes in which I was not allowed to speak at all, not allowed to bring my evidence, everything was ignored, and they found me guilty. And much like in Matt’s case, nine days later, they gave me a royal pardon. It’s bonkers!”


Al-Shakarchi: However, you didn’t leave after that…

Haigh: “The royal pardon came with the condition that I didn’t appeal [the case] and my lawyer was told, ‘Just tell him to go home, there’s too much drama. We don’t want this anymore. Tell him to go home, he’s got his pardon.’ But a pardon still means that you’re guilty and I’m a lawyer and I haven’t done anything wrong… I’m not having some dodgy country say that I’ve done something that I haven’t. It’s the same for poor Matthew as they’ve rather childishly referred to him in the UAE recently as the ‘convicted spy who has been pardoned’ and so he’s still a convicted spy. I said no, I don’t want it. I ended up spending probably another six months in jail, longer than I would’ve done because then, they slapped a Twitter abuse charge on me…”

Al-Shakarchi: What was behind the Twitter abuse charge?

Haigh: “They were saying that whilst I was in jail, without having access to food let alone a paper or pen, I somehow had an amazing IT system and could tweet, which was completely untrue. I was literally about to get back on a plane the next day, dealing with the embassy about the formalities, and then they’re like, ‘There’s another charge.’

And what they were doing, as often happens in these cases, was using the legal system as a litigation tactic… They were keeping me locked up so they could actually push the civil cases through while I couldn’t defend myself. People there do it all the time to others, even banks do it all the time, to try and get some extra money.

Every time we had a hearing, they deliberately forgot something and had it adjourned and adjourned, and so I had five hearings for Twitter abuse when I couldn’t have possibly done it. At the end of this, Human Rights Watch issued a press release saying, ‘It needs to be dropped, this is ridiculous.’ A couple days later, I’m acquitted and on a plane back and again, on first-class.”

Al-Shakarchi: Why do you think it took 22 months for you to be released while it only took eight months for Matt? 

Haigh: “Because there was more media for Matt and you’ve got a better foreign secretary. For whatever reason, Jeremy Hunt seems to be quite aggressive and previous foreign secretaries just haven’t done that. When I came back in 2016, I spoke to them and all they would say to me was, ‘Quiet diplomacy… There’s no point shouting from across the bar, everything is done behind closed doors in the Middle East.” And my point was: That’s very nice, but it’s not really working, is it? You’ve got hundreds and hundreds of Brits locked up there and no one’s really looking after them and Matt’s case was an example of that. Had he not gone to the press, he would still be there, probably for life, for something that he clearly did not do.”

Al-Shakarchi: How similar was your case to that of Matthew Hedges’?

Haigh: “I was reading all the information and I just remember thinking, ‘Couple of minutes in court. Not allowed to see his lawyers. Solitary confinement. Abused. Not given the proper access to medical care. Not allowed to visit people. Didn’t have access to the outside world. Forced to sign a false confession in an hour with no translator…’ It’s like a carbon copy of everything that’s gone on before… In my case, in other cases, and there’ll be more: That’s the problem. There’ll be another Matthew, there’ll be another me that comes up, and unless we do something, it’ll just keep happening and happening.”


Al-Shakarchi: Did you have a translator?

Haigh: “No, no… There’s supposed to be, but there isn’t. I’ll give you some perspective on how their translators are: I speak a little bit of Brazilian Portuguese, not much, just enough, and towards the end of my time in the police station, they had arrested 3 transsexuals from Brazil who couldn’t speak English and so they used me as their police translator. I can only say a few words, certainly not [enough to] translate a conviction. It’s so ridiculous in that scenario.”


Al-Shakarchi: You mentioned being forced to sign a statement, like Hedges. How did that play out? 

Haigh: “In my case, there were three [documents that I was forced to sign.] Right at the beginning, they managed to bring me in for a check that I had signed about nine months earlier. Apparently, my signature was a little bit different or something like that, so the bank had held it. On that, they said, ‘Sign this,’ and screamed and shouted at me and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t really know what it was, but it was a check, and they said, ‘Sign this and you can go,’ and so I signed it, not knowing what it was. Then, when the more serious thing came and they started beating me and torturing me to sign, I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. No. I’m not going to do that.’ I don’t know what happened… I just got stubborn.

And so they tried again when it came to the Twitter abuse thing and again, and I just said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’ By then, I knew what they [the statements] were while in the beginning, I didn’t because they just say, ‘It says what you said.’ That’s what they say to you... When you ask, ‘What does it [the statement] say?’ their response is always, ‘It says what you told us.”

Al-Shakarchi: You’ve mentioned being subjected to torture, could you explain what happened to you?

Haigh: “It was pretty graphic what they were doing. There was electrocution, they were standing on my throat… They beat me so badly the third time that they fractured my cheek, my hand, and I’ve had to have that repaired since so there’s plenty of evidence of what they did… It’s the same form that they use when they use extreme cold temperatures in concrete rooms and [they would use] light as well, by keeping the light on or turning the light off, and then they beat you and they hit you in certain areas so that it doesn’t bruise and they use tasers and then they electrocute you with these sorts of cables.

Everyone else that his has happened to, it’s the same thing, it’s the same story that you hear over and over again. But then, it got out who I was and then after that, it subsided. It was horrible what they did… It’s still difficult to talk about it, even though I talk about it a lot.”

Al-Shakarchi: Did they ever offer you anything? 

Haigh: “I was taken outside into the parking lot in the middle of the night and essentially, they were trying to extort money from me. The prosecution and the police were saying things like, ‘Well, you own a football club, you must have lots of money, give us some money and we’ll smuggle you out to Oman and set you free’ and I’m just like, ‘Hang on a minute… I haven’t done anything wrong.’

It was strange to me because this was the country that I had lived in for eight years without any trouble at all, which I’ve promoted around the world, which I’ve really done a lot for, I thought, and I was in this ridiculous situation.”

Al-Shakarchi: What was one of your worst memories during your detainment?

“I’d see a lot of what the police would do to other inmates as they came in. I once saw them… (Pause) literally, I think they murdered him. There was a young Pakistani man, a tall young man, didn’t look like he was crazy… A group of men dragged him in and beat the living daylights out of him. They were standing on his throat while he was grasping for air and they dragged him off in blood, he wasn’t breathing.



That happened… that’s the worst memory that I’ve had in terms of PTSD because he was at the side of me and I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, I didn’t know what was going to happen to him, and still now I always think: What happened? There was this very poignant moment: In the staff room [where the man was being tortured], you can look through their little window and you can see the Etisalat Tower… So you look at that, a gleaming tower in the sky, and you look on the floor and you see this act of barbarity and the two just don’t go together. But maybe they do… Maybe that is Dubai.”


In 2014 David Hedges was detained in Dubai for 22 months without trial. Today he is a campaigner for human rights and justice in the UAE, and a founding partner in Stirling Haigh, an international crisis management and dispute resolution and strategic advisory firm.


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