The former managing director of Leeds United is to spend Christmas in jail in Dubai after being accused of posting offensive tweets about his former employer while in prison.
David Haigh was given a two-year jail term in September after being held for 14 months without trial in the emirate following an allegation that he had defrauded Gulf Finance House (GFH), a Bahrain-based investment bank, of £3m.
The 38-year-old Briton, a solicitor and one-time campaigner for the Conservative Party, had been due for release and deportation back to the United Kingdom on 16 November. But a day before he was to be set free, GFH brought a fresh complaint against him under Dubai’s draconian “cyber slander” laws covering material posted on social media.
The finance house accused Mr Haigh of “abuse by electronic means” in tweets he allegedly posted in March this year. The Briton strongly denies the allegation, pointing out that he could not have sent the messages because he was in prison at the time without access to a computer or smartphone.
The businessman appeared in court on Monday to deny the allegation but the case was put back until 4 January, meaning he will not return to Britain and must remain in prison in the United Arab Emirates until at least next month.
If convicted he faces a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment and a fine of £5,500.
A friend of the Briton said: “The effect of this complaint is to detain David in Dubai for even longer. Why was it made a day before he was due for release? The nature of the system is such that he will now be detained unless or until the authorities decide whether the complaint can proceed. That could take weeks, if not months.”
Campaigners said the case was latest example of the indiscriminate nature of the UAE’s cyber crime laws, which were introduced three years ago and make it an offence to publish content which is “contrary to public morals, the principles of Islam and the social and moral welfare of the UAE”.
Support groups say the broad scope of the law and the nature of legal system in the UAE mean the legislation is open to abuse by individuals who may have a grudge and want to cause their target anxiety and inconvenience by having them placed under investigation.
Jodi Magi, an Australian ex-pat was ailed and then deported this summer after she posted a photograph of a car apparently blocking two parking spots for the disabled outside her Abu Dhabi apartment block. Despite the registration number having been blocked out, the owner of the vehicle complained, leading to the arrest of Ms Magi and a fine of £1,700.
Detained in Dubai, a British-based pressure group which helps foreigners arrested in the emirate, said it had seen a sharp rise in the number of individuals seeking its help after finding themselves subject to cyber slander claims.
Radha Stirling, the group’s chief executive, said: “In my opinion it is a crazy and scary law. It may not have been the intention but it is being manipulated and used in people’s vendettas.
“All it takes is for somebody to make a complaint and the respondent will be stuck in the UAE until the matter is resolved. We have had 300 queries in the last year alone. Because of the nature of the system and the fact the law has not been tested in the higher courts, our advice is often that people should make a humble apology to make it go away. The alternative can be many months, if not years of delay.”
Mr Haigh, who was deputy chief executive of a subsidiary of GFH until March last year and helped negotiate the company’s purchase of Leeds football club, said he was frightened and worried about the latest claims against him.
Asked if he had sent the unspecified tweets which are the subject of the complaint, Mr Haigh told BBC2’s Newsnight: “Absolutely not. I was held in a jail in Dubai.”
A note on the Twitter account carrying his name states that it is written by a third party and managed on his behalf while he remains in a Dubai police cell. A friend said the Briton had no access to means of communication other than a pay phone.
GFH did not respond to a request from The Independent to comment on the proceedings.
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