An American woman who faced two years in prison for an alleged cybercrime in the United Arab Emirates because she called a man a “dirty animal” for harassing her and sharing intimate photos with others has finally been allowed to leave the country.
Melissa McBurnie, a mother of one from California who previously worked as a personal assistant to celebrities like Rob Lowe, John Denver and Joan Rivers, has finally departed the UAE after living there since last November.
“Just a couple of days ago, the charges were dropped,” Radha Stirling, a United Kingdom-based activist who has been advocating for McBurnie, told The Christian Post. “After our little media campaign, she went in front of the prosecuting judge and he said he's going to drop all of the charges. And she was allowed to leave the country.”
McBurnie, 57, was accused of violating the country’s strict cybercrime laws that can punish anyone who has used the internet to insult or slander someone in any form.
According to Radha’s organization, Detained in Dubai, McBurnie has for the past four years been the victim of sexual harassment and a cyberbullying campaign after she refused to get involved in an affair with a 58-year-old Egyptian man.
Over the last two years, McBurnie was sent over 120 sexually explicit emails and text messages, some of which included pornographic videos of the Egyptian man. The man is also accused of sending intimate images of McBurnie to strangers. He also allegedly asked third parties to slander her.
McBurnie sent an email asking the man she says stalked her on Facebook since 2015 to stop communicating with her and called him a “dirty animal.”
“He had stolen photographs of her and circulated them privately and even to the U.S. Embassy,” Stirling explained. “He breached her trust. When she retaliated, she said, ‘I can’t believe you did that, you are a dirty animal.’ He then raised that with his lawyer and had her arrested for calling him a ‘dirty animal.’”
Under the UAE’s cybercrime law, no one is allowed to insult anyone in any electronic form. On Feb. 24, McBurnie was arrested at the Khalidiya police station in Abu Dhabi. She endured two hours of detention and paid the equivalent of a $1,300 bond for bail.
Detained in Dubai raised the alarm about McBurnie’s case, warning through media articles that she was “trapped in the UAE” until her case could be heard. It was previously reported that her case would not be heard until May and that she faced the possibility of two years in jail.
“She was stuck there for several months. Without media intervention, she could have been stuck there for several years,” Stirling explained. “Had she not been able to convince the prosecuting judge at that point with the power of the media and everything else, she would have run out of money and she would have been homeless. A lot of people do become homeless during this time and can’t afford legal representation. If you don’t have a lawyer and you don’t speak Arabic, you can end up in prison for a long time.”
According to Stirling, the prosecuting judge has kept the file open in McBurnie’s case so that the man who made the allegations against her could face punishment the next time he enters the UAE.
"The person who unfairly took the allegations against her, the next time he comes into the country, he's going to have problems," Stirling said.
“We’ve had cases where people have made up allegations and the police take it very seriously. In some cases, they are very vindictive and more personal and they just want to get someone jailed or into trouble. Because she had media attention on her case, the authorities took it very seriously and they wanted her to get out of the country as soon as possible.”
Stirling became an advocate over 12 years ago when one of her colleagues was detained in Dubai. According to Stirling, the cybercrime law is so broad that it can even be used against a husband or wife who insults their significant other during a time of divorce.
As in the case of McBurnie, the law presents problems for Western tourists who are ignorant of the law.
“My primary issue is that U.S. tourists or British tourists or any anyone going there can be charged with cybercrime law if someone raises it to the attention of the authorities,” Stirling said. “And that could be a disgruntled ex-lover, it could be a disgruntled ex-husband or wife. It could be a disgruntled former employer.”
“They can look through your history,” she added. “And even if you've posted something on Facebook or Twitter from three years ago, and even from outside of the country, that could be considered offensive in the UAE.”
One example is the case of Laleh Sharahvesh, a British woman detained last year over a Facebook “horse” insult. U.S. citizen Tracy Nichole Coffel was detained last year when she used WhatsApp to ask her employer for unpaid wages and compensation for medical bills after the employer’s horse bit her.
“Penalties under the UAE’s cybercrime laws are severe and most travelers are unaware they are in violation of several laws the moment they set foot in the UAE,” Stirling said. “Sharing a charity page, retweeting a negative story, posting something considered offensive to others, sharing private photos, using a VPN are all criminal offenses. Even a private WhatsApp message or email can be reported if one party finds the content offensive.”
She believes that Western governments need to do a better job of warning their citizens of issues like the cybercrime law before they travel.
“I think that the travel warnings are really insufficient,” she opined. “People are not aware.”
Correction: March 20, 2020:
A previous version of this article stated that the man who Melissa McBurnie claims harassed her was her ex-boyfriend. McBurnie has clarified that the man was never her lover nor her boyfriend but someone who stalked her for five years on Facebook.