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A Nigerian lady, Dichi Lar, who was jailed for three months in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, for taking to Twitter to post a protest video about her encounter with Dubai immigration officers, tells GODFREY GEORGE about her ordeal

How does it feel being out of detention after three months?

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It still feels like I am dreaming. I still wake up in the morning and still think I am in prison. I have to consciously remind myself that I am now out of prison. I am still trying to adjust to my normal life. So, things have not fully come back to (normal for) me, as it is now. For instance, I am still indoors. I haven’t really started going anywhere yet. I had a medical checkup done and I still have to go see the doctor with my results. I developed some medical complications while in detention. I started having lower back pain because there are no chairs in the prison and we had to sit on the floor. I think that has complicated the whole issue. I have done an X-ray and I will get to see what it looks like and what other tests look like.

So far, it is so great to be out, to be honest. There is nothing like one’s freedom being taken away. Apart from being sick; the next worse thing for me is one’s freedom being restricted or taken away totally – like in my case. It comes with mental and emotional torture. The prison warders may not necessarily do anything to you physically but the conditions they subject you to and the way you are treated begin to make you feel less of a human. In my own case, there was lack of information. I was not told anything about my case. It contributed to my breaking down. But I am happy to be out.

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When exactly were you released and when did you set foot in Nigeria?

I was released on December 7, 2022, and I came to Nigeria that same day. I was deported from the United Arab Emirates. So, I was taken from the prison to the airport and flown back to Nigeria.

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There have been a lot of stories surrounding your arrest and subsequent imprisonment. What really did the UAE authorities say  your offence was?

My sister and I planned a trip to Dubai for vacation. We finally got a chance to go at the end of August. My sister normally travels with Emirates Airways while I go with any other one available. So, she left two days before me. She arrived in Dubai and booked a hotel. She said she wanted to attend a training of some sorts, which was to hold two days before my arrival. There were no issues. We had the same type of visa. She was even the one that helped us apply for the visa – a family visa. We left on August 29 but arrived on the 31st. When I got to the airport, I approached the passport control officers to stamp my passport, which is the normal way it is done. But the guy there just looked at the visa, looked at my passport and gave it back to me, and told me to go to another office across the hall. When I got there, I met other Nigerians seated there. They told me that they gave their passports to the passport control officers at the counter. I also gave my passport to the official there and sat. There were about seven or eight of us there in that group. We kept waiting for almost an hour and the officials were not saying anything.We became almost impatient because the process was not supposed to take that long. The officials came in about two hours later and took us on the metro at the airport and transported us to another section of the airport. At that point, we felt it was a new process for passport stamping. We were still hopeful and didn’t think anything was wrong. We followed them, cooperated with them and they took us to another room, where I saw many other Nigerians.

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Did the officials tell you what was wrong with your visa?

No, they didn’t. I had to ask the other Nigerians I met in this new room what they did and they said they didn’t know and that they had just got to the airport in Dubai and were taken to the room. Some of them had been there a day or two days before. They could not tell why they were there but their passports were in the custody of the immigration officers. These officials were dressed in white, so one couldn’t tell if they were police or immigration officers. In that holding area, there was a small office. There was also a section for women and another for men.

How long did you have to wait for your passport to be stamped?

We waited for more than two hours. I arrived at 12.30am that day. After two hours, I asked the officials at that small office what was wrong, but they didn’t say anything. We just needed to know why we were being held in a holding area of an airport against our wish. They would just say, “Go back and wait.” We waited for more than six hours and it had become really bright outside.

After a while, I began to hear, “Get out! Go out!” They had brought another group of Nigerians after my group and there were very impatient people who had begun to shout and ask questions. A particular lady who was also in the video I made was shouting and asking questions because she was really stressed with the long flight. She had to go ask one of the officials what really the problem was but they simply told her to go out.

At what point did you start recording the video which you eventually posted on Twitter?

It was at the point when the lady was asking questions and was being shouted at by the Immigration officials. I stood at the walkway and was calmly recording. If we had done something wrong, we had the right to know. We are humans, not animals. I couldn’t even capture all that was going on because some sections of the holding areas were covered. I was simply calling for help from anyone who could explain to us what we had done. I didn’t see how that was wrong. This was more than seven hours after we arrived in Dubai. In Nigeria, it would be really early, maybe 3am.

How did the video get on Twitter?

After making the video, I thought about who to send it to that would be of help, maybe this was the new rule. I just needed someone who had experienced similar issues at the airport. I considered sending it to the Director-General of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, but the Twitter Direct Message was locked. I had to post it on my timeline and tagged her and two other Nigerian government handles; I also tagged one Yusuf who was also popular on Twitter.

I waited because Nigerians were still asleep and the tweet hadn’t received any traction. I had to contact my sister while I waited since she was already there in Dubai, having arrived two days earlier. I called her so she could come get information from Immigration. My thinking was that maybe if she came, they might tell her what the problem was. She came from the hotel room at around 7am Dubai time and approached the officials but they didn’t tell her anything reasonable at all. Up to this point, nobody told us what exactly my fault was. They kept tossing my sister from one office to another, with no information whatsoever. She spent over two hours, going back and forth.

Were you able to gain entry into Dubai on that day?

Yes, after much ado. One of the officials came and called me, gave me my passport, and instead of releasing me to go into Dubai, they took me to another place where my luggage was and passed me through a very huge and scary scanner. At that point, I thought I was being mistaken for a drug or arms dealer. It was very humiliating. I had never had that kind of experience before. I had travelled to other countries and I have never had such an experience before. How can I take my money and come for a vacation and meet such humiliation for no reason at all? I was already in tears at that point. When they finished, I met my sister and she was already so worried.

Did your sister tell you what the officials said your offence was?

She said they didn’t tell her anything. I was held at that airport from 12.30am to about 10am with no information at all.

Was this your first time travelling to Dubai?

No, it was not. My sister and I had been in Dubai in 2019.

How many days did you spend in Dubai?

I spent about five days. I had even forgotten about the earlier tweet I made. I went round Dubai, shopped and had a proper vacation. On September 6, 2022, when I was supposed to come back to Nigeria, I was stopped at the airport. But two days before then, a statement was released by the Nigerian government, saying some Nigerians, including me, were being held at the airport, that we travelled with a ‘wrong’ visa and all that.

If that was indeed the case, why were we not told? Nobody from the government reached out to me; they simply took the word of the Dubai authorities for it, saying that I travelled with the wrong visa. It cannot be true because I travelled with my biological younger sister; we share the same surname. They were the same people who gave us a family visa. If they were claiming it was a wrong visa, couldn’t they have told us? My sister travelled two days before me; why was she not humiliated and held in the holding cell? Why didn’t they send us back since we came with the wrong visa? They held us against our wishes like we were some animals waiting to be slaughtered. Why did they eventually stamp my passport and let me into Dubai even after they claimed I travelled with the wrong visa? It is shocking that the Nigerian authorities will believe foreign authorities and not their own citizen.

Why were you stopped at the airport on the day you were to leave?

I cannot tell. I used the Turkish Airline and my flight was for 7am, but they couldn’t check me in. They tried a few times but it was not working. They simply told me that I might have a travel ban and might not be able to travel. They gave me a number to call and that was when my journey started. I called my sister and we started going from one office to another. We went to the immigration headquarters and they told us to go to the Criminal Investigation Headquarters. I first made a stop at the Nigerian Consulate and the officials who attended to us were so rude. The person said we should have read the laws of the land before coming to Dubai. I didn’t even know it was the video I posted on Twitter that was the problem till that official made that statement. I explained to him that I was being held for almost eight hours and no one was saying anything but he was not having it. How would I have known that posting a video of injustice meted out on me was frowned upon in Dubai?

After a while, he reluctantly sent one official to follow me to the CID office. I was the one who even paid the cab fare. When we got to the CID office, the officer said I should follow him because I had made a video five days earlier on Twitter. I quickly deleted the post on Twitter and told them. I even apologised but that was not enough. They told my sister and the person from the consulate to just go and that I would be released the next day. But that never happened; that was the beginning of my spending more than three months in detention. They forced me to give them my phone password and even threatened me that if I didn’t give them the password, I would have bigger problems. They also promised to release me, so I gave it to them in good fate, but I was never released.

What happened next?

They drove me back to the airport and put handcuffs on me and locked me in a COVID-19 quarantine room. They didn’t let me make a call at all to anyone. I was there for three days. My sister did not know where I was and she called my parents who were also panicking. What kind of humiliation was that?

Were you being fed?

Of course, yes. They brought breakfast, lunch and dinner to me right there in detention. After then, I was put together with other inmates and I was able to reach my sister. I was there for six weeks.

When were you taken to court?

I was taken to a virtual court three weeks before and they simply asked me, “Were you the one who made a video at the Dubai airport?” I said yes. They said I harassed a police officer by posting his video online and that my sentence would be read out to me in two weeks. The day I was supposed to be transferred to the central prison, they said I had COVID-19. They kept me there for 10 days and I couldn’t file my appeal on time. By the time a lawyer was contracted by my family, it was already two days before the end of the window period for my appeal. They said I had been sentenced to one-year imprisonment. We filed an appeal. After a month, we got a new court date and we went back to court. This was November 22 and the judgment came out on November 29 that my judgment had been reduced to three months, and I had already stayed more than that.

How were you released?

They had their National Day on December 2 and they granted some prisoners pardons. My name was not among them but when they came to pick the prisoners out, the officials said I should join them. That was when I knew that the government of Nigeria must have intervened somehow but I had already served my sentence.

Did the Nigerian consulate in Dubai visit you at any time when you were in prison?

Yes, they came twice. This was after the House of Representatives member representing my constituency, Honourable Benny Lar, met with the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and the matter had also gained a lot of traction on and offline. I later learnt that I was supposed to pay a fine alongside my sentence but the fine was removed by their intervention. To date, nobody from the government has debriefed me about anything.

Looking back at all this, how does it feel?

When I look back at this experience, I feel disheartened. The government should have done so much more to help. NIDCOM did not care to contact me or send a representative to talk to me. It is so sad and embarrassing. If you see what is happening to our people in Dubai, you will cry. In prison, you will meet many people with trumped-up charges, serving jail time with no hope. I was put in a maximum security prison for posting a video on Twitter. Our interests as Nigerians are not protected in the UAE.

But I will love to thank all Nigerians who fought for my release online. I will also love to thank the Minister of Foreign Affairs and other government officials instrumental in my release. The lawmaker representing Langtang North/South Federal Constituency, Beni Lar, also deserves applause. She made sure my case got to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was in her office that I was first received before going to my family.

Do you have plans to travel to Dubai again after this?

Except the Lord tells me to go there and preach the gospel, nothing will ever make me go there again in my lifetime. The Dubai you see on the outside is very different from what they truly are.

Punch


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