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  • Sherif Osman

The Dubai Trap - the story of Sherif Osman

Guest blog by Sherif Osman

My name is Sherif Osman, I was raised in a repressive country. Egypt has been one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to human rights records. I was raised in a military family and formerly served as an Egyptian Airforce communication Captain. Growing up, I’ve seen how people suffer under the heavy police arm of the military dictatorship.

I wouldn’t have imagined that I would see similar practices happen systematically in a prestigious organization like INTERPOL until I saw it myself and this is my story.

The last place I served at was the famous Egyptian presidential airbase, Almaza. I deserted for political reasons to the United States in 2004. I have been a whistleblower since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 and became an American citizen in 2014.

Before Alsisi, there were few Egyptians living in exile, now we are in the tens of thousands.

My only sister has lived in Dubai since 2006, and I’ve been visiting almost every year since 2014, never been stopped or questioned going in or out of the UAE.

This changed in 2022. The 2022 visit was special to the whole family. It was my niece’s (the only granddaughter) 18th birthday, family reunion and introduction of my fiancée to the family before we would get married. We were ready, had tickets booked in July, and everything was in place. My fiancée, Saija Virta, is Finnish American who had never been to any MENA country before. We booked our first international flight to arrive at midnight of November 3rd.

Two months prior to the trip, I called for peaceful strikes in Egypt during COP27 events that was planned to take place in Sharm Elsheikh between November 6th and 18th. I chose November 11th, and it went viral in Egypt. My mom was supposed to arrive on the 4th at night, but Egypt banned her from traveling, disrespectfully pushing her wheelchair outside of the departure area. My mom is a disabled veteran, former army doctor who retired as a brigadier general more than twenty years ago.

Jailing or holding family members has been one of the tools systematically used by Alsisi since he came to power. Until then, it was never used on me before.

It was two days from my mom’s travel ban until I was kidnapped from the streets of Dubai on 6th November.

Walking outside a restaurant, after a late lunch with the family, I was approached by plain clothes cops who kidnaped me and took me to an unknown place to meet with “an official”. This 45-minute trip ended at the Dubai Polica HQ back gate, an INTERPOL office.

Three cops were present. It took almost 3 hours on 4 different computers in addition to What’s App messages scrolls, until I saw my picture in a swap up.

They finally stood up and told me that I have an INTERPOL Red Notice from Egypt and that I will be deported within a week if I approve the notice, which, in the middle of the shock I denied.

I was not allowed to make a phone call to contact my family, consulate, or a lawyer. They told me that I wouldn’t be allowed any calls until after I saw a prosecutor, which happened two days later. My phone and phone watch in addition to all my belongings were confiscated.

The prosecutor met with me on a recorded skype video call and told me that I’m wanted in Egypt for a case since 2019. I responded denying what he said as I haven’t been to Egypt since 2004. I stated that I went through the Dutch customs in and out with no issues. I stated the fact that I visited Dubai in 2019 and 2020, and I was never told anything about an INTERPOL notice.

I watched the case being cooked before my eyes. I knew that everyone was lying to me, but the most important thing I started to realize was that I was stuck in the jail of a repressive government that is a close friend to Egypt. All I knew was not even relative to what was happening to me as I saw laws being twisted.

I was taken to Dubai Central Jail. They lied to me saying that the prosecutor has approved my release, but the order has to be processed. They gave me my belongings to check in and I realized that was my only chance to reach out for help as my cellphone was there - this changed the whole story. I texted my family and friends and informed them of what I was going through. A few minutes later, my name was called to be checked in and I was again disconnected from any hope and had to check in all my belongings. 

Later that evening, I was able to contact my family after some inmates volunteered to help get over the system barrier to make a phone call. During that call, I learned that I was not in this fight by myself. The US Consulate was involved, online campaigns were louder than anyone would have wished for in a very short period of time, phone calls made to the State Department were in the hundreds within a few hours, and it appeared that the Egyptian regime started talking about arresting the long-wanted terrorist in Dubai and readiness to receive me to grill and then hang.

As a deserter and whistleblower, I exposed military classified information. I stripped down the masters of puppets a.k.a. the generals behind the curtain by facts proven true over the past twelve years and everyone in Egypt now sees their corruption.

Saija, my fiancée, found herself in the middle of a fight that I never involved her in. She is not into politics at all. Being Finnish American left her without any need to fight for her freedoms. She had to step up and fight for my own freedom, and she nailed it. She reached out to many NGOs, Congress members, media outlets and activists who helped connect her to various journalists. The word was out. The UAE was facing a great amount of criticism and legal questions about my status.

At the very end of November, the UAE changed the narrative. I had been told that there was an INTERPOL Red Notice from Egypt – all questions were based on that fact. Suddenly, it had been a notice issued by the Arab Interior Ministers’ Council (AIMC), an institution of the Arab League. The AIMC is the MENA INTERPOL. The transition from INTERPOL, led by an Emirati officer with a huge human rights violation record, to the AIMC happened very smoothly, when the US consulate officer questioned it, he was told that it was an AIMC case from the beginning.

The legal system in the UAE is a hot mess. I was afraid to discuss the transition over the phone. I knew that all the calls were being recorded and, in my case, I worried that transcripts were printed after every single call. It was expensive to make international phone calls, yet that was the only time I felt my real identity. I was speaking to my fiancée in English. We comforted one another and held each other up during tough times.

I was able to take bad news on the phone and not react. There were cameras and I knew that I was being watched. Besides all the stress I conceded, not showing those stresses was another stress. Every time Saija told me bad news, I went quiet and asked her to let me go with a promise to call back in a short bit. I established my own technique to vent it out. Walked back and forth down the hallway, walked it off. I thought deeply about everything. Vented out my anger and frustration. It was a bottomless jail time.

There was nothing legal or logical happening to me. I had two oppressive regimes and two international police organizations working against me and my team. My best friend, PhD of law Hisham Sabry, a former secret service police officer, a freedom fighter and a researcher at Indiana University was on the phone all the time with and my fiancée managing the campaign to save me step by step. 

The media became louder until news regarding my situation made it to The Guardian. A very strong article came out on December 21 that sent a shockwave to the White House, according to the US consulate officer who visited me the next day, on our weekly routine visit. I was told all the filtered-out information from the day before. It was scary and I was angry. Not a single statement came out from any politician or diplomat.  

The consulate weekly visit was over, I called Sergeant Nabi to walk me back to my detention center. He asked me to wait because there was a visit coming to me at the complex management building.

I freaked out thinking that this was it.

There was no reason to think of anything positive while I was already kidnapped and jailed unlawfully. I couldn’t sit, I kept walking around the computer visitation center. A few days earlier I felt that any disturbance of the routine was dangerous, now I understand it is part of my PTSD.

They had to try to calm me down, walked me to the headquarters and offered me water. Ten minutes later an inmate walked in handcuffed, and I realized that as I wasn’t that might be the light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe it was my last day before deportation. I knew about the incarceration conditions in Egypt, and worried that once I was deported, hanging would be my next big event.

Your head will never take you to a comfortable place when you are under these types of pressures. Finally, three men came, walked into the deputy’s office and the whole jail management building went on mute, like totally quiet - or it might have been in my head.

I walked into the office to find the deputy’s fancy seat pushed around the office to head the coffee table and I was asked to sit down. I openly told them that their visit was not welcomed and due to the shock I had, their disturbance of the normal routine was met with fear and inability to cope with the thoughts and feelings I had and asked them to state the reason for the visit before I even sat down. I was told that they were there to put everything behind me and get me back home to the US.

Comforting words and promises to be released ASAP were news out of this world.

I waited an hour to wake Saija up at 4am Massachusetts time. She answered the phone and I told her that I have good news for her - she was in disbelief. She started almost screaming, happy that our struggle was coming to an end. Since she flew back to the US, she had to change her working hours so she could wake up at 3am to handle what was coming from Dubai and pack it to the American side so they can start acting on it. The phone was only available 6 am- 9 pm UAE time. That was 9pm until noon US time.

Now I have a case at DC Federal Court against everyone who was involved in this scandal. I hope the litigation jumpstarts INTERPOL reformation to help prevent this from happening again to anyone.

I decided that I will never visit a country that does not hold human rights as a priority. It is traumatizing now to travel anywhere outside of the US for both Saija and I, even though we were never criminals nor associated with any crime.  


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