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The New York City college student who was sentenced to a year in prison for touching a Dubai airport security guard’s arm has been freed after a “hellish 5 months” and is heading back home.
Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, a Lehman College student, is “ecstatic to be returning to the US after five months of anguish,” the advocacy group Detained in Dubai said in a statement on Tuesday.
The 21-year-old’s sentence was commuted a day after she was ordered to be jailed for the July incident where she was accused of “assaulting and insulting” a female airport employee.
“Elizabeth boarded her flight home to New York late Tuesday night,” Detained in Dubai CEO Radha Stirling said in the release. “The news that her sentence would be commuted was a welcome end to Elizabeth’s hellish 5 months in Dubai that left her humiliated, traumatized and out of pocket $50,000.”
The advocacy group then shared a message thread between the Bronx college student and Stirling.
Los Santos confirmed to the CEO she appeared in court and was fingerprinted during the day before she was told to meet police at the airport where she would retrieve her passport and board a plane bound for NYC.
Los Santos’ months-long detainment in the UAE began in July when she embarked on a vacation to Istanbul with a friend following the death of her father and back surgery.
The pair stopped in Dubai rather than Paris on their way back to the US to see the city during a 10-hour layover.
“We thought it would be a more modern and futuristic city but we were completely wrong,” she told the advocacy group.
While she was checked by airport security, Los Santos was asked to remove a doctor-mandated waist compression suit she needed because of the surgery.
She was brought back to a private screening room with plain-clothed women who removed the compression suit but were “rough, hurting her swollen wounds as they removed the compressor,” Los Santos’ mother told Detained in Dubai.
“I was feeling uncomfortable and afraid. I felt really violated,” the business arts student said.
Los Santos then requested assistance to put the complex garment back on, but the women only laughed at her and caused her to become even more uncomfortable.
Los Santos leaned over to ask her friend to come help put it on, but while she was doing so, she made contact with one of the female workers.
“I gently touched her arm to guide her out of the way then desperately started crying to my friend for help,” Los Santos said, according to the agency.
Officers detained Los Santos for hours while the female worker wrote a complaint against the American before forms written in Arabic were brought in for the 21-year-old to sign.
She spent the last couple of months moving between different hotels as she awaited for the courts to hear her case.
In August, a judge ordered Los Santos to pay a fine 10,000 AED (about $2,700 US) and head home, which is seen as a compensatory payment used to extort tourists for a secondary income.
On Monday, prosecutors appealed the ruling and Los Santos was ordered to a year in prison before Tuesday’s commute of the sentence.
Stirling called for the Dubai government to forbid workers from asking for such payments as “Dubai’s justice system is routinely misused to extort victims and it’s about time the US State Department updates its travel warnings to reflect this common practice.”
“We are of course thankful that Elizabeth is on her way home but is that really a happy ending? She should have been home in May,” Stirling added.
“Instead, she has been left with the scars of an incomprehensibly traumatic experience for a young student, she has lost US$50,000 that she will never be compensated for. Furthermore, she’s been convicted on the basis of mere allegations, sentenced to a year’s prison, fined and deported. That in itself is a disgrace.”