Legal dispute facing Texan ‘Sassy Trucker’ in Dubai shows the limits of speech in UAE

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A Houston woman known online as the “Sassy Trucker” has been stuck in Dubai for months after an altercation at a car rental agency, the latest case showing the limits of speech in this skyscraper-studded city-state.

The case against Tierra Young Allen, 29, comes as the seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates have rules that strictly govern speech far beyond what’s common in Western nations. A middle finger raised in a traffic dispute, a text message calling someone a name or swearing in public easily can spark criminal cases — something that foreign tourists who flock here may not realize until it is too late.

Allen traveled to Dubai in April, with her social media accounts with tens of thousands of followers showing videos of her test-driving a Mercedes semitruck, going to the beach, seeing tourist attractions and partying in nightclubs.

But toward the end of Allen’s trip, a rental car driven by a friend she was with was involved in a crash April 28, said Radha Stirling, who runs a for-hire advocacy group long critical of the UAE called Detained in Dubai. After the crash, Allen tried to retrieve personal items still inside of the car from the rental agency, sparking an altercation, Stirling said.

The circumstances of the altercation at the unidentified car rental agency remain unclear. Stirling has described Allen as facing possible charges for “shouting” at an employee of the rental car agency, without elaborating on what Allen specifically said at the time. Stirling accused the car rental agency employee of “raising his voice at her and following her out of the shop” during the incident.

Allen “was ‘scared’ and intimidated by his aggression,” Stirling said.

Allen did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press, which Stirling attributed to “the risk of additional charges from the UAE government” if she spoke publicly.

In a statement, Dubai police disputed Stirling’s description of the altercation.

The “Dubai police received a complaint from a car rental office, accusing her of slandering and defaming an employee amidst a dispute over car rental fees,” police said in their statement. “The individual was questioned as per legal procedures and subsequently released pending the resolution of ongoing legal proceedings between her and the car rental office.”

Typically, police place travel bans on those involved in such cases until a resolution is reached. Police take statements from both parties, then determine whether they should be forwarded onto prosecutors. Cases are resolved by the complainant dropping the case, the two parties agreeing to a settlement or going to court. The police hold Allen’s passport, Stirling said.

Responding to a query by the AP, the U.S. State Department acknowledged it was “aware that a U.S. citizen, Tierra Young Allen, is unable to depart Dubai.” However, it did not elaborate on the circumstances of Allen’s case.

“We take seriously our commitment to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are providing all appropriate assistance,” the State Department said. “The Department remains in regular communication with her and her family. We will continue to monitor her case closely.”

The State Department separately warns travelers coming to the UAE that “individuals may be arrested, fined, and/or deported for … making rude gestures, swearing … and making derogatory statements about the UAE, the royal families, the local governments or other people.”

Under Emirati law, publicly insulting another person can carry a sentence of up to one year in prison and a fine of $5,450. Disputes over rental car agency fees have seen other foreign tourists stuck in the city-state in the past as well.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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