The United Arab Emirates condemned Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, a college student from New York City, to one year in prison for allegedly “assaulting and insulting” an airport security guard during a flight connection in Dubai during the summer.
According to the advocacy group Detained in Dubai, the 21-year-old Lehman College student was sentenced on Monday after spending nearly three months trapped in Dubai with a travel ban issued against her.
She needed a vacation after losing her 44-year-old father and undergoing surgery, so she traveled to Istanbul with a friend for a few days. After their trip, Los Santos and her friend left on July 14 for New York. Originally, their flight was scheduled to connect in Paris, but they adjusted the ticket to transfer to Dubai so they could explore the famous city during a ten-hour layover.
“We thought it would be a more modern and futuristic city, but we were completely wrong,” Los Santos shared.
Things went from bad to worse. While going through security, Dubai airport personnel asked Los Santos to remove a waist compressor she had no choice but to wear following a recent surgery. Female staff removed the compressor, but Los Santos’ mother told Detained in Dubai that they were rough and hurt her daughter’s still-healing surgery wounds in the private booth where she was taken.
They also laughed at her, and when she requested assistance in putting back the complex attire, they refused, Los Santos’ mother said. Los Santos recalled “feeling uncomfortable and afraid. I felt really violated.”
She explained that the compressor had “many many pins and you need to stretch the edges and clip small skinny pins together close to the body,” and as staff continued to ignore her pleas for assistance, Los Santos leaned past a security guard blocking her path and called out for her friend to come and help her.
According to her, she gently touched the guard’s arm to ease her out of the path before anxiously reaching out to her friend for assistance. Los Santos was immediately locked in a room for hours while the security guard she had touched filed a complaint against her. She couldn’t go until she signed a document written in Arabic. She did and was allowed to leave.
She learned of the travel ban when she went back to the airport later to board her ticket to New York, so she had no choice but to stay in the country while the accusations against her were being examined in court.
After spending many weeks in hotels, a judge permitted her to leave after paying 10,000 AED (approximately 2,700 USD), but Dubai prosecutors appealed the decision, and she was ultimately given a year in prison.
Los Santos was due to return to work on July 17, but she has missed several physical therapy sessions and treatments in the United States, where she visits the doctor’s office every other day because she is still undergoing treatment. In her absence, her university began classes, and her flat contract expired in September.
Radha Stirling, the Detained in Dubai founder, remarked, “Elizabeth only intended to transit through Dubai for six hours, but she’s been there for months on end and has lost $50,000 in expenses and lawyers’ costs. On top of being humiliated and traumatized by airport staff, Elizabeth has suffered months of being forced to stay in an expensive country, pay expensive lawyers, and miss out on her university studies.”
Although the next hearing is planned for October 23, Los Santos has been informed that the prosecution may file another appeal and keep her in Dubai throughout, regardless of the decision.
“Even if Elizabeth wins her case, six months or more of being forced to stay in the country at her own cost while under the very real threat of imprisonment is an unacceptable consequence of transiting through Dubai,” Stirling expressed.
“She is under the most incredible stress, which is impacting her physical and mental health, disrupting her entire life, and scarring her long-term. This is simply no way to treat visitors. It’s outrageous.”