Singaporean photographer opens up about harrowing jail time in Abu Dhabi

Nurul Azliah
Senior Lifestyle Reporter
Singaporean fashion photographer Muhammad Fadli bin Abdul Rahman, 26, speaking to the media for the first time since returning from Abu Dhabi. (Photo: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

What was supposed to be a joyous holiday for Muhammad Fadli Abdul Rahman in Abu Dhabi turned out to be a harrowing experience for the Singaporean fashion photographer when he was jailed by local authorities for almost three weeks in three different places.

The 26-year-old was arrested along with his Singaporean friend Nur Qistina Fitriah Ibrahim, 37, on 9 August, just one day after they arrived in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Speaking to the media for the first time since his return to Singapore on Tuesday (29 August), Fadli told Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore on Thursday (31 August) that he and Nur were not aware of the specific charges they would be facing for a few days. He assumed their arrest could be related to them being accused by the local police of looking feminine.

It was only about five days after their arrest that a court told the duo that they were accused of wearing women’s clothes and behaving indecently, charges that Fadli vehemently denied. They were sentenced to one year’s jail and deportation from the UAE.

“I was wearing a white, long-sleeved shirt, long black pants and a pair of sneakers. Fifi (Nur) was wearing pants and a checkered shirt. We were not wearing dresses or were in women’s clothing,” Fadli said.

Sporting a shaven head after his stint in prison, Fadli said that he was hoping to meet potential clients in Abu Dhabi but instead, he had “bought a ticket to go straight to jail”. Nur, a pre-surgery transgender person, was also forced to have her long hair shaved off.

Fadli and Nur were detained in Abu Dhabi’s Central Investigation Department, the city’s biggest prison Al Wathba and a “detainees’ apartment”.

While in detention, Fadli inadvertently found out about how the media was reporting about the arrest when he overheard an inmate talking to his sister in English. Fadli was deeply affected by their conversation about the duo and said the media was sensationalising about the circumstances surrounding their arrest.

Singapore fashion photographer Muhammad Fadli bin Abdul Rahman, 26, was arrested along with his friend Nur Qistinah Fitriah Ibrahim, 37, in Abu Dhabi on 9 August. (Photo: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

Day of the arrest

Fadli and Nur arrived in Abu Dhabi on 8 August but did not walk about in the city until the next day. It is a city familiar to Nur and she had visited it a few times without incident. Their ordeal began while they were walking around in Yas Mall on 9 August when they heard someone yelling at them.

“A man dressed in a kandura (an ankle-length Arab garment) and headgear shouted at us from behind. He showed us his police badge and asked if we were male or female,” said Fadli, who was in Abu Dhabi for the first time.

The man, who was a police officer, confiscated the duo’s identification cards and took them to the tourism police office in the mall.

“At the tourism police office, we just kept asking them ‘what’s happening?’ and ‘why are you arresting us?’,” said Fadli. He and Nur had their mobile phones with them but they were not allowed to make any phone calls in the office.

Contrary to media reports, Fadli said the duo hadn’t reached the food court in the mall when they were arrested as they were still deciding on a place to eat. The duo were then escorted to Abu Dhabi’s CID headquarters, where they had their legs shackled and valuables confiscated.

It wasn’t until more than 12 hours later when they had their valuables returned briefly before they were transferred to another cell. During the transfer, Fadli quickly took the opportunity to text Vanessa Ho, his housemate in Singapore.

“I had one per cent of power left in my phone’s battery. I think that was my lucky one per cent. So I discreetly texted my housemate to say, ‘Help. I’m detained… they thought we looked feminine’.” Fadli wasn’t able to contact the Singapore embassy due to the low phone battery. A police officer caught Fadli using his phone but did not confiscate it.

Tears welled up in his eyes as Singaporean fashion photographer Muhammad Fadli bin Abdul Rahman, 26, shared with the media on Thursday (31 August) about his homecoming. (Photo: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

Life in an Abu Dhabi prison

When the duo were told by the court about the jail sentence, they were shocked and angry at the “unfair” verdict. “I think it’s quite ridiculous to be sentenced for a year for what they call crossdressing and we weren’t even crossdressing. We just didn’t know how to feel,” said Fadli.

Spending their nights behind bars at three different places took a heavy toll on the duo. During the initial period of their detention in the CID, they were locked up in solitary cells that were far apart from each other.

“It was torturous, very silent and depressing. I begged to them to move me to the cell beside Fifi so that we could speak to each other. If not, we would go crazy,” said Fadli.

The officers at the CID eventually granted Fadli’s wish to move to the cell next to Nur’s, and the duo began to cope better with imprisonment. To initiate communication with each other, they would knock on the walls of their cells. But it was still a struggle to have a conversation due to the “echoey” cells so they had to resort to shouting.

“We would try to make jokes and make each other laugh. If not, we would be so depressed,” said Fadli.

When they were later transferred to the detainees’ apartment, Fadli and Fifi shared a cell with several other inmates, some of whom were detained for similar charges.

Release from jail and homecoming

After having spent about 20 days in detention, Fadli and Nur were resigned to being locked up for a year. But they were relieved to find out that their ordeal would soon be over when they heard the surprising news that their sentence had been reduced to a fine of 10,000 dirhams (S$3,700) and deportation.

At their last visit to the same court on 27 August, Fadli and Nur were asked by a judge – who was part of a three-judge panel – whether they had worn dresses, women’s clothing or wigs.

Confused, the duo replied “no” before they were caught off guard by the judge’s last question. “Would you like to stay in Abu Dhabi or go home?” said the court’s translator, according to Fadli.

“Fifi (Nur) and I were confused because obviously we want to be home already. We said we were just here for holiday.”

The judges then announced the case was “khalas”, or “done” in Arabic. “They laughed and told us that we were going to be deported,” said Fadli. Upon hearing the verdict, Fadli wanted to jump for joy but couldn’t do so as his feet were shackled.

The Singapore embassy helped the duo to get Singapore-bound flight tickets. Feeling a sense of elation about their homecoming, Fadli and Nur couldn’t sleep during their seven-and-a-half hour direct flight back to Singapore.

“We were escorted to the airport, but we were still shackled. They only removed once we got to the (departure) gate…We were so relieved to be on the flight. Now we’re going home,” Fadli said.

For Fadli’s long suffering family members, his return home was the best gift they could hope for just a few days before they celebrate Hari Raya Haji. When he touched down at Changi Airport, he was greeted by the warm embraces of his parents, several of his aunts and other family members.

With tears welling in his eyes, Fadli struggled to express the emotions he felt at the airport to this reporter before saying, “It’s so nice to see my family again.”

Editorial note: The story has been edited to reflect the change in the pronoun for Nur Qistina Fitriah Ibrahim (Fifi), a pre-surgery transgender person who identifies as a woman.

Fadli talks about his arrest in part one of our interview here:

Fadli talks about jail time and coming home in part two of our interview here:

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