A British-Australian dual national living in Dubai who wanted to raise money for Afghans who fled their country's long war has been detained for weeks over promoting a charity, his supporters said Friday.
Scott Richards' case appears to be the first prosecuted under a new law that regulates charities amid regional concerns about cash donations reaching extremists. However, his supporters warn the regulations can be applied to anyone wanting to do good by donating to international causes or even talking about them online.
“I'm shocked and horrified. It's heartbreaking because you're trying to do something so simple to make a positive difference just to help,” Richards' brother, Brett Richards, told The Associated Press. “Relieving suffering was the only goal Scott had.”
Richards, who grew up near Adelaide, Australia, and is married with two children, remains held at a Dubai police station. He appeared at a brief hearing on Thursday.
He was arrested July 28, apparently over his support of the Zwan Family Charity in Afghanistan after advising the local government there, his brother said.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, a number of small charities have set up in Kabul to aid those maimed or left homeless by the country's decades of war. Zwan Family Charity, registered as a public charity in Richmond, Texas, with the Internal Revenue Service, joined them relatively recently, in 2013.
One of its projects focuses on providing tarps to protect against the elements for those living in Charahi Qambar, a community of mud homes northwest of the Afghan capital, Kabul. The thousands living there are largely ethnic Pashtuns who fled Helmand and Kandahar provinces, part of the Taliban's southern heartland in the country that has seen 15 years of violence. Children and others in the camp have frozen to death there in winter.
“We have a hard time getting someone to donate something like a tarp,'' said Kimberly Wolenski, the vice president of Zwan Family Charity. ``It just doesn't seem to fall on heart strings the same way.”
Richards was a friend of a friend to the organization and put out a statement supporting it and urged people online to donate to the tarp project, Wolenski said. She stressed the nonprofit has full accounts of its finances, urges its donors to follow local laws and has no ties to political or militant groups in Afghanistan.
For Richards, his trouble apparently began after posting online about the charity and being quoted in a local Dubai newspaper about its efforts.
“I think he was trying to raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan,” his brother said. “He was just shocked when he saw the conditions. I think he just thought, ‘Maybe I can do something.’”
Under a decree last year by Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the emirate banned raising money or promoting any charity online or through the media without first getting the approval of the city-state's Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department. The decree, which exempted ruling family members, set penalties of up to one year in prison or a 100,000-dirham ($27,000) fine for violators.
While liberal compared to other parts of the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates has strict laws governing speech and online conduct. The Dubai charity decree also comes as Mideast nations face Western pressure to crack down on charity donations that get funneled to regional extremist groups.
Sheikh Mohammed's decree did not mention that concern, though a report on the state-run WAM news agency at the time quoted a charity leader saying the law “protects philanthropists from falling prey to fraud and racketeering.”
The Dubai Media Office declined to immediately comment on Richards' case.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Richards traveled on his British passport to the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. The British Foreign Office acknowledged Friday it was providing him consular assistance, without elaborating.
For now, Richards remains held without a formal charge, said Radha Stirling, a lawyer based in Britain whose advocacy group Detained in Dubai is assisting in his defense. Since his case, Stirling said she's received a number of calls from panicked expatriates worried about their own charity donations or online comments being used against them by anyone holding a grudge.
A lot of cases in general “come from someone offended by something you said or something you did on your Facebook,” she said. “It could be anything. They have a look at anything else you've done that might be in breach of the law to make a complaint.”