NYC college student sentenced to one year in Dubai prison over airport altercation freed, group says

(DUBAI, United Arab Emirates) — A 21-year-old New York City college student who was recently sentenced to prison time in the United Arab Emirates over an altercation at a Dubai airport has been freed, an advocacy group said.

Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, a student at Lehman College in the Bronx, had been sentenced to one year in prison after being accused of “assaulting and insulting” Dubai International Airport customs officials, according to Detained in Dubai, an advocacy organization that supports foreign nationals who have been detained and prosecuted in the United Arab Emirates.

Her sentence has since been commuted and she boarded a flight home to New York late Tuesday night, the group said.

“The 21 year old is ecstatic to be returning to the US after five months of anguish,” Detained in Dubai said in a statement.

De Los Santos had been detained in Dubai since July, according to Detained in Dubai. She was traveling back to New York from a trip to Istanbul with a friend when she had a 10-hour layover in Dubai on July 14, the group said. While going through security, a security officer asked the student, who recently had surgery, to remove a medical waist trainer suit she wears around her waist, stomach and upper chest, Detained in Dubai said.

De Los Santos complied and repeatedly asked the female customs officers for help to put the compressor back on to no avail, according to Detained in Dubai. While calling out to her friend for help, she “gently touched” the arm of one of the female officers “to guide her out of the way” of the security curtain, De Los Santos told Detained in Dubai.

De Los Santos was detained for touching the female customs office, signed paperwork in Arabic and was allowed to leave the airport, according to Detained in Dubai. Upon returning for her flight to the U.S., she was told she had a travel ban issued against her, the group said.

On Aug. 24, judges ordered her to pay a fine of 10,000 dirhams (about $2,700) but customs officials appealed the sentence, according to Detained in Dubai. She was sentenced to a year in prison, the advocacy group said on Monday.

“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,” but does not mention the risk of detention.

The State Department said earlier Tuesday they are “aware of the sentencing” of De Los Santos.

“The department is in communication with her and her family and we’re going to continue to monitor her case and be involved,” State Department principal deputy spokesperson Verdant Patel said at a press briefing Tuesday.

ABC News did not immediately receive a response from Dubai authorities seeking comment on the matter.

Prior to De Los Santos’ sentence being commuted, Detained in Dubai said the appeals process could take months and called for De Los Santos’ immediate release. The group also urged the State Department to revise its travel warnings to “include the risk of false allegations and extortion scams.” Currently the State Department’s advisory warns Americans to “exercise increased caution in the United Arab Emirates due to the threat of missile or drone attacks and terrorism.”

De Los Santos’ mother contacted Detained in Dubai after learning about Tierra Allen’s case, the group said. The Texas resident was charged in Dubai for allegedly verbally accosting a rental car agent in April and was issued a travel ban while awaiting trial, according to Detained in Dubai. Her criminal charges were ultimately dropped and the travel ban lifted, and she was able to return to the U.S. in August, according to Detained in Dubai.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

SHARE NOW