British-Australian man detained in UAE after Afghan charity plea

British-Australian man detained in UAE after Afghan charity plea
A man who called for donations to a charity working with Afghan refugees has been held in a Dubai police station without charge or access to lawyers since July.
4 min read
19 August, 2016
Richards has been detained by Dubai police since July [Facebook]

A British-Australian dual national has been detained at a Dubai police station - without charge or access to lawyers - since July, family members and activists have claimed, after he called for donations for a charity working with Afghan refugees. 

His supporters say that Scott Richards - named as Scott Reid by some outlets, and believed to be aged 41 or 43 according to varying reports - wanted to raise money for refugees and used Facebook to call for donations.

However, police picked up Richards and he became the first person to be prosecuted under a new law that punishes promiting charities without government approval.

It comes after regional concerns about cash donations from the UAE reaching extremists such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, or the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Critics believe there are other reasons for the laws.

Charity plea

Richards' supporters say the new regulations have been used against Richards' well-intentioned charity plea and that the charity is fully transparent and non-politically alligned.

He had reportedly been trying to raise money for blankets and tarpaulins for refugees at the Chahari Qambar camp outside Kabul, where 100 children froze to death a harsh winter there four-years-ago.

"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 AP. "Relieving suffering was the only goal Scott had."

Richards was arrested on 28 July, apparently over his support of the Zwan Family Charity in Afghanistan where he was advising the local government, his brother said.

The US-registered charity has been providing tarps to protect the mostly Pashtu refugees against the elements at the Kabul camp, where must people live in mud homes.

The charity said these plastic sheets could make the difference between life or death for children there this winter.

I think he was trying to raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan.
- Scott Richards' brother

"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 organisation and put out a statement supporting it and urged people online to donate to the tarp project, Wolenski said.

She said the charity is fully transparent and has no ties to any political or militant groups in Afghanistan.

Saving lives

Richards began posting online about the charity and urged people to donate through their GoFundMe site, but trouble appeared to begin when he was 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.'"

Last year, Dubai made it law that anyone promoting or raising money for a charity but first get 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 UAE and other Gulf countries have come under Western pressure to crack down on charity donations that could get funnelled to regional extremist groups.

The UAE has also been clamping down on the Muslim Brotherhood, which operates charities and political wings in some Middle Eastern countries but is banned in the Gulf state as a "terrorist organisation".

Abu Dhabi also banned a long list of foreign charities with alleged links to the Brotherhood as part of an ongoing clampdown against members of the movement following pro-democracy Arab Spring protests in 2011.

State-run WAM news agency said the law "protects philanthropists from falling prey to fraud and racketeering."

The Dubai Media Office declined to immediately comment on Richards' case.