A 70-year-old Georgia man who snapped a photo of a sign banning photography is now facing five years in prison.
Such are the laws in the United Arab Emirates where university professor Robert Alan Black was lecturing at a conference last month before he decided to stroll the streets of Abu Dhabi with his camera, coming across the sign and snapping a photo.
He was immediately arrested and held in secret for a week before he was finally allowed to call his family. He is still incarcerated but not formally charged. The UAE, which has one of the worst track records for human rights in the world, have jailed several people in the past for public photography.
Now his family has launched an international campaign in the hopes of freeing the well-traveled professor who never left home without his camera.
According to the Daily Mail:
Dr Black was lecturing at a conference in the city and was thought to have innocently taken a photo of the strict sign near his hotel on a walkabout of the embassy district.
He appeared to be amused by the sign, and was entirely unaware that it enforces an ultra-strict code which allows for a five-year sentence for anyone who breaks no-photography rules.
His friend Mahmoud Arafa, who was with him at the conference and is now campaigning for his freedom, said: ‘Photography is his passion. He is always glued to his camera and takes pictures everywhere.
‘Wherever he is, he takes snapshots of everything.’
There was also speculation he could have inadvertently taken a photograph of the outside of a sheikh’s home while snapping a mosque.
‘I believe he wanted to post this picture [of the sign] on Facebook because there is nothing like this in the US,’ said Mr Arafa, of Washington DC.
After taking the picture, Dr Black was arrested and thrown into prison.
Earlier that day, he spoke at the conference:
He took to the stage at 2pm for his lecturer’s slot at the conference, speaking to government and public sector officials from the UAE as well as educators and organisational leaders from across the Arab world.
Dr Black was one of 15 international speakers invited to participate in the two-day conference.
On the night of October 20, at a celebratory dinner in Abdel Wahab Lebanese restaurant to mark the end of the event, he told colleagues he planned to take more pictures the following morning.
His last message on Facebook was at 6.30am on October 21, when he explained he was doing 100 different walks over 100 continuous days to combat his health problems, which include type two diabetes, cholesterol, blood sugar and high blood pressure.
He said he had stuck to fruit and vegetables since 1977 but was still at ‘borderline risk levels’.
His walk was thought to have taken him no further than a one-mile radius of his hotel – but that included the diplomatic district, where security guards are rife and UAE officials take a dim view of anyone taking pictures, which is deemed to be a matter for state security officials.
In Dr Black’s case, he was arrested on October 21 but the alarm was not raised for a week.
Friends and family describe Black as an outgoing, good-natured man who loved mingling with other cultures and that is evident from his photos as well as the video below where he speaks about self-improvement.
Black is the last person they should want to arrest, even if he was technically breaking their law. And he should be the last American to ever visit the United Arab Emirates, not that they are dependent on American tourism.
But they are dependent on American dollars for their oil, so hopefully American oil companies demand his release.
The Daily Mail explains their photography law
According to article 168 of the UAE Penal Code, anyone caught taking pictures of palaces, embassies and security facilities can be sentenced to up to five years in jail and receive a hefty fine.
Three years ago, an Iranian tourist was sentenced to a month behind bars for taking photos of the presidential palace – after languishing in jail for three months before the verdict.
And an Indian man was fined nearly $300 for photographing planes taking off from Abu Dhabi airport.
Chief Justice Shehab al Hammadi of the State Security Court said at the time that ignorance of the law was no defense.
An Emirati court last year sentenced eight people, including an American, to up to a year in prison for their role in producing a satirical video about youth culture in Dubai that prosecutors said defamed the country’s image.
The American, Shezanne Cassim, was released within weeks of the verdict, after having already serving nine months behind bars.