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How the Russian Mafia Salvaged My Brutal Year in Dubai Prison

Meet Karl Williams, a Londoner whose Dubai holiday basically went up in flames when he and his friends were arrested on drug charges in 2013.

by Nick Chester
May 8 2016, 12:00am

Not the actual prison from this story.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Some may see Dubai as the perfect holiday destination. Its idyllic beaches, luxury shopping malls, and lively nightlife make it easy for tourists to forget that there's a much darker side to this Gulf Coast paradise. Despite the UAE's reputation as one of the more relaxed and moderate Islamic countries, it's a place where police brutality is reportedly rife and racism is propped up by a two-tier system that sees some Emiratis enjoy comfy lives while low wage workers from the country's 88 percent migrant population slave away for little pay.

British tourist Karl Williams was blissfully unaware of all of this when he traveled to Dubai in 2012. He was more concerned with enjoying the sun, sea, and sand—that is, until six pistol-packing policemen dragged him and his friends Grant Cameron and Suneet Jeerh out of their hire car. The police then proceeded to brutally beat Karl while repeatedly calling him a "black shit," he has said.

The police found packets of the synthetic cannabis 'Spice' in the car, and Karl and his two friends allege they were then tortured for more information about their supposed supplier. Karl was later sentenced to four years in a hellish prison system in which he says rape was commonplace, the inmates were routinely drugged, and the wings were unofficially run by the Russian mafia. I caught up with him to find out more about the year he spent in custody before he and his friends were pardoned and released in April 2013.

VICE: Hi Karl, thanks for talking to us. Let's rewind: what were the circumstances surrounding your arrest?
Karl Williams: We rented a car, and we'd just finished shopping, so we started putting our bags in, and noticed that a bag was already in there. We looked inside, and saw loads of little parcels. We didn't think much of them at the time, but later, whilst we were parked up at my friend's apartment waiting for him to come out, we were swarmed on by the police. We were pulled out of the car, put onto the ground, slapped around, and led out into the desert, where they started tasering us.

What were they after?
One of them said, "Call your dealer and get him to bring us some spice." I said, "What the hell's spice?" I hadn't even heard of it. He said, "Tell us who you got it from." I told him, "Mate, I don't know what you're talking about." They also used a lot of racial slurs, which is typical of the authorities there. We heard racial slurs constantly from both the police and the staff in the prisons. Anybody who isn't a pure-blooded Emirati is treated worse and looked down upon there. After that, they took us back to our hotel room and kicked my hand until it broke. I was blindfolded, and had an electronic cosh rubbed up the side of my thigh into my testicles.

That sounds awful. How long did you end up spending in prison?
I was pardoned and released after doing just over a year. I was in two different prisons: Port Rashid and Dubai Central Prison.

What were the conditions like?
In Port Rashid, they were disgusting. It was overcrowded, with around 300 people in a jail that's supposed to hold about 100. The food was awful, and the prisoners ran the place. The second prison was very clean, and the food was good. It was a prisoner-run jail as well though, with no guards walking around, and the other people in there were absolute nutcases. The Russian mafia were the most respected people in there. They were the nicest people I met; they were just like normal people. They were extremely respectful, clean, and had an amazing sense of morality.

Besides the Russians, what other nationalities were represented?
Around 20 percent or 30 percent of the prisoners were Indian, Pakistani, or Bengali, another 20 percent or 30 percent African, and around 15 percent were Filipino. There were also a lot of Emirati gangsters.

What was the deal with contraband?
Mobile phones were smuggled in by the officers. There weren't a lot of illegal drugs, but most people seemed to have been allocated prescription drugs. I can't remember exactly which drugs they were, but some people were given uppers and others were given downers. I wasn't allocated anything myself.

Was that to keep them calm and under control?
Yeah, but lots of people ended up trading them. A prison guard and one of the other inmates both told me that the staff routinely put drugs in our tea as well. They put bromide [a sedative that's deemed unfit for human consumption in most countries] in there.

The cover of Karl's book on the whole thing

Grim stuff. I've also heard that rape is common in Emirati prisons, and that people use HIV as a weapon. How much of that sort of thing did you see?
If a gangster had a serious issue with someone, for example if another prisoner had stabbed one of his friends, he would get someone with HIV to infect that person to get revenge. There was also a guy who used to rape a lot of the newcomers. I'm not a big gangster or anything, but when I saw the guy, I looked at him and laughed. I said, 'What, you're the guy who's been raping everyone?' He said, "Yes, I put drugs in their tea and then do it."

What about violence?
Yeah, we were given metal dinner trays, which people snapped bits off and sharpened. At night, you could hear people sharpening them up. The last thing you want to hear whilst you're trying to get to sleep is someone sharpening a razor blade against the floor.

How did you end up getting pardoned?
If you're convicted of a drugs offense in Dubai that's also your first offense, you're sentenced to four years. You're also eligible to be considered for a pardon. We were eligible, but I think we were actually released early because our case got a lot of publicity.

What impact has all this had on your life?
At first, it had a very negative impact on me because I had to see a therapist for quite a while. I bottled a lot of stuff up and obviously had a lot of bad experiences to deal with. At first, it had a very negative impact. Once I got over that negative phase, it really increased my creative drive. I've written a book about my experiences, called 'Killing Time,' and my time in prison has also propelled me in my music career because I found it hard to talk about what happened, but easier to make songs about it. I've got an album coming out later this year.

Thanks, Karl.

You can follow Karl and Nick on Twitter.

Not the actual prison from this story. Photo by Raul A via

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