Banged up abroad: How an investigative journalist’s sting was cut short

Written by BHUPEN PATEL

Not all stings go as planned. You pull some off while others are abruptly and drastically cut short by extenuating circumstances. Even though I had known that there was a significant amount of danger and a high chance of not unearthing much evidence, I had never expected that I would be arrested so soon after arriving in Dubai. The reactions of the staff at the hotel had shown me just how scared they were of talking about Hanif and that there was clearly more to the matter than met the eye.

It was almost afternoon by now. Despite my repeated requests none of the officers agreed to help me make a call to arrange for some help. The prisoners who had finished their lunch wanted to nap but didn’t have enough space. Those who were brought after me argued with the on-duty cop, clueless as to 

why they had been arrested.

Suddenly an official arrived and announced the names of some of the prisoners from a list in his hand. He called out my name too, leaving me anxious about what lay ahead.

We were asked to stand in a queue outside the cell. Once all the inmates had gathered, they asked us to move towards the lobby. Each of us was given a slate that had our name and other details, such as age, nationality and purpose of visit mentioned on it. One by one we were pushed in front of a photographer who took our pictures, including profile shots.

We were then directed to the fingerprint bureau of the unit and were asked to give our prints on a sheet of paper for the record. I almost felt like a criminal for a crime I was unaware of. The mental trauma was getting more unbearable with every passing hour.

The moment I consoled myself that everything would be all right, I was put through some form of humiliation. While I was waiting in line for the fingerprints, I excused myself on the pretext of going to the washroom, just a few steps away. To my surprise, the officer allowed us totake a loo break without an escort.

As I entered the washroom, I saw one of the other guys taking out a cell phone from his undergarment. He made a call to one of his relatives to inform them about his arrest.

From his conversation, I realized that this man was a Pakistani. He turned out to be a messiah. When I asked him if I could make a call, he offered me his phone without any hesitation and my heart went out to him. Luckily, I remembered the phone number of one of my friends and messaged him about my arrest, not knowing whether he would receive it.

We were brought back to our cell after the photos and fingerprints had been taken. The jail was almost full, with over five to six hundred inmates. They all had the same question—what had brought them there—and the same hope of being rescued. Some said that it was just a routine round-up while others claimed that the operation was a precautionary action in the wake of an international conference that the UAE was about to host in the coming week.

As the clock struck seven, all the staff sitting began winding up, indicating the end of their duty. The new set of officers seemed to be more aggressive than the previous lot. They demanded strict discipline among inmates and ensured pin-drop silence in the cell. Talking had been the only way of passing the time, but now that was forbidden.

I waited for dinnertime, not because I was hungry but so that I may have another opportunity to access the phone. But all my hopes were shattered when two men came from the canteen with dinner.

The prisoners were served rice and fish with gravy. On any other day at home I would have enjoyed the food, but the mental agony had taken a toll on my appetite. Every minute seemed like an hour. I was certain that this place would be home indefinitely. With no sign of help so far, it seemed that the message sent to my friend had not been delivered. I had even sent my friend the number of my bosses and colleagues so that he could make a few calls and seek help.

Around 10 p.m., I saw a senior officer entering the cell. As soon as he entered the room, the junior staff got up from their seats. He looked around, asked the officers a few questions and left. The officer attending to the prisoners looked at me and asked me to follow him to an adjacent room, where the senior officer was waiting for me. He took my belongings out of a bag, keeping them in front of his superior. Of all the belongings, he lifted the camera and asked, ‘What’s in this?’

I feared that if I told him the purpose of my visit to Dubai, they would keep me in jail longer. I gathered courage and maintained that I had come for a tour, saying that I was clicking pictures at Jumeirah beach when the cops caught me. I told him that the camera had a few photographs that I had clicked just minutes before the cops arrested me.

‘Are you telling the truth?’ the officer asked me, to which I firmly replied, ‘You can develop the films and verify.’ He had a short conversation with his junior in Arabic. ‘You can go,’ he finally said.

Not realizing that my release would take place so abruptly, I asked him once again, ‘What, sir? What did you just say?’

‘You may leave,’ he repeated. Without thinking further, I collected all my belongings and stuffed them in my backpack. My steps faltered as I nearly ran out of the headquarters, unable to believe my luck. After almost half a kilometre, I slowed down and saw a cab waiting by the side of the road. I opened the door and sat inside it without saying a word to the driver.

Considering how strict the Dubai police was, I knew I had been lucky to be let off. So I decided to drop the case and return home. I still wonder what I would have found out if only I had been able to dig further. In February 2012 the high court confirmed the death sentence to Ashrat Shafiq Ansari (34), Mohammad Hanif Abdul Rahim Sayyed (46) and his wife Fahmida Sayyed (43) for claiming the lives of fifty-two persons and injuring over 100 in Mumbai in 2003. On 6 August 2009, the special POTA court convicted the three accused and sentenced them to death.

(Excerpted from The Anatomy of a Sting by Bhupen Patel: published by Penguin Random House)

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About the author

BHUPEN PATEL

Bhupen Patel is the author of The Anatomy of a Sting