A transgender Singaporean and her friend have been sentenced to a year in prison in the capital of the United Arab Emirates for dressing in a feminine way, friends and family say.
Abu Dhabi police did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday, but the two's arrest and quick sentencing show the danger that the LGBTQ community can face in the Mideast nation home to the famous nightclub scene of Dubai.
Nur Qistina Fitriah Ibrahim, a transgender woman, and her friend, freelance fashion photographer Muhammad Fadli Bin Abdul Rahman, were arrested in Abu Dhabi on Aug. 9, friends say. Police stopped them at Yas Mall as they tried to eat at a food court, said Radha Stirling, CEO of the advocacy group Detained in Dubai.
Fadli at the time of his arrest was wearing a white T-shirt, a bow tie and earrings, his brother Muhammad Saiful Bahri Bin Abdul Rahman said.
"I hope to bring my brother back to Singapore as soon as possible," he said. "My brother is a friendly, selfless and jovial person. It's ridiculous to be jailed for his dressing."
Ibrahim, who is known by the nickname Fifi to friends, is a frequent traveler to Abu Dhabi and hadn't had any trouble in the past, friends said.
The two believed they would sort out the issue and return home quickly, but were sentenced to a year in prison in a court hearing, Stirling said. She alleged the two did not retain lawyers at the advice of the Singapore Embassy in Abu Dhabi.
Chan Zhi Wei, an official at the Singaporean Embassy, called the allegation that consular officials advised against getting a lawyer "incorrect," without elaborating.
"The embassy is currently rendering the necessary consular assistance to the individuals in question and their families are being assisted to seek legal advice," he said.
Abu Dhabi advertises itself as a tourism destination and is home to the long-haul air carrier Etihad Airways. However, the emirate bordering Saudi Arabia is more conservative than Dubai, the UAE's commercial heart.
But even trips to Dubai can pose risks to LGBTQ travelers and others as laws sometimes contradict social attitudes, Stirling said. A British man in the UAE faced charges of "cross dressing" last year, but Stirling said she helped him leave the country after paying a fine of 5,000 dirhams ($1,360).
Meanwhile, alcohol possession for foreigners is technically illegal without a government-issued license obtainable only after gaining their employer's permission, though liquor and beer is widely available in bars and clubs in both cities. Foreigners also have faced charges in the past for having sex outside of marriage. Such laws are common in other Mideast nations, based in part on Islamic legal codes.
"Alcohol, prostitutes, homosexuality, sex outside marriage and revealing clothing are all ever present, making these practices seem legal or at least, common and acceptable," Stirling said. "In reality, they are serious offenses that can lead to lengthy imprisonment, fines and deportation."