Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, a student at Lehman College in New York City, has been freed after she was sentenced to a year in a Dubai prison for allegedly assaulting airport staff in what advocates are characterizing as an extortion attempt. Photo courtesy of Detained in Dubai
Oct. 3 (UPI) -- A student at Lehman College in New York City who was sentenced to a year in a Dubai prison over an alleged assault of airport staff has been freed, according to an advocacy group that had characterized her charges as an extortion attempt.
Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, 21, boarded a flight in the United Arab Emirates to New York late Tuesday after being told her sentence was commuted, the organization Detained in Dubai said in a statement.
"The 21-year-old is ecstatic to be returning to the U.S. after five months of anguish," it said. "Elizabeth is finally on her way home to New York where her mother eagerly awaits."
De Los Santos was arrested during a layover in the Middle Eastern country while en route to New York following a trip with a friend to Istanbul, Turkey. The trip followed the death of her father and a recent surgery, according to the organization Detained in Dubai.
De Los Santos said she was "humiliated and traumatized" by airport staff on July 14.
"Elizabeth is mandated by surgeons to wear a medical waist trainer suit (compressor) that goes around her waist, stomach and upper chest," Detained in Dubai said.
A security officer in Dubai told her they needed to remove her waist trainer and she was taken into a booth "with some plain clothed women in local dress" who laughed at her as she struggled to remove her compressor.
"I was feeling uncomfortable and afraid. I felt really violated," De Los Santos said in remarks published by the organization.
De Los Santos was "half-naked" as she "gently touched" the arm of a customs officer standing in the way of view of her friend whom she tried to call out to for help.
She was detained in a room for several hours and broke down crying and apologizing for touching the other woman.
"She hadn't hurt anyone, endangered anyone and she had already been put through a most humiliating and unnecessary process," according to the advocacy group.
"Elizabeth was forced to sign paperwork in Arabic before they allowed her to leave the airport. After a few hours, she returned to the airport to resume her flight to the U.S. where she was told she had a travel ban against her."
On Aug. 24, Emirati judges ordered her to pay a fine of 10,000 dirhams, about $2,700, but customs officials appealed the sentence and she was ultimately slapped with jail time.
"They either want her in jail or they want to pressure her into making a compensatory payment to them," Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, claimed in a statement last month.
"The government of Dubai should stop this type of corruption by banning government employees from being able to accept out-of-court settlements for criminal complaints."
U.S. State Department spokesperson Verdant Patel said at a press briefing prior to her release on Tuesday that "the department is in communication with her and her family and we're going to continue to monitor her case and be involved."
Detained in Dubai said De Los Santos' case should serve as an example of what occurs daily in Dubai where billions have been spent on marketing the city as a glamorous tourist destination for international travelers but little has been done to ensure their safety.
"Tourists are vulnerable to vindictive, false and unevidenced allegations that could leave them languishing in notorious jails," Stirling said late Tuesday.
"We are of course thankful that Elizabeth is on her way home but is that really a happy ending?"
Stirling said the ordeal cost De Los Santos $50,000 and five months of her life.
"Dubai's justice system is routinely misused to extort victims and it's about time the U.S. state department updates its travel warnings to reflect this common practice," she said, while thanking the U.S. Embassy in the UAE and Rep. Ritchie Torres for their support.
The State Department travel advisory for the UAE urges travelers to "exercise increased caution," the second lowest advisory on the four-tier system over potential terrorism attacks.