NEW ORLEANS — For two years, New Orleans native Lionel Lombard was imprisoned in Dubai on charges he calls fabricated and totally false.
After being released suddenly without explanation, he was quickly ushered out of the United Arab Emirates on instructions from the U.S. government and arrived home in New Orleans in February 2010.
Within days of coming home, Lombard secured a lawyer and began his fight to hold accountable those he believes responsible for his imprisonment. In summer 2010, he filed a lawsuit against Mohammed Ali Rashid Al Abbar, chairman of Emaar Properties.
In addition to unlawful imprisonment, Lombard’s $60 million lawsuit alleges racism, torture and violation of human rights.
Even though he was finally free and out of Dubai, Lombard said that he felt he couldn’t just put the nightmarish experience behind him and resume life. “That’s what everyone does—if you want things to change, then you have to say something. If you know better you have to do better,” Lombard said.
But for the past two years, Lombard has spent much of his time fighting the U.S. Department of State for records kept by the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in the UAE regarding his imprisonment — documents he says he needs to move forward with the lawsuit. Lombard said his lawyer advised that they pull the lawsuit until they have all the documentation.
On March 5, Lombard was notified that he will go to court on March 27 (for a second time) to continue to try to get his records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Lombard’s troubles started in 2006 while he was living in a gated community in Dubai. He was working as a public relations creative consultant out of his home office. On one of his frequent walks around the area where new construction on the subdivision was under way, Lombard said he saw a group of migrant workers who had no shoes, no passports, no food and no place to sleep. The next day Lombard said he went into the Emaar Properties office to express concern and ask about the safety and well-being of the employees. “The Emaar representative said ‘I’m sorry these people are bothering you,’ Lombard said.
From that moment, Lombard said everything changed. He said he was constantly harassed by the security guards on the property. They would follow him at night and refused to let him in through the front gate, Lombard said. A frequent line of harassment was to ask him where he was from, and tell him that he can’t possibly be an American because he is black, Lombard said.
The problems intensified to the point where Lombard said he was forced to jump the gate in order to get to his home. He decided that he needed to do something and filed a harassment case against the property company.
After his business partner and employees started getting harassed, Lombard said he went into the police station. When he did so, he was jailed.
He said that he found out through his lawyers and in a newspaper that he had lost the harassment case. The newspaper reported that he was already in prison. Lombard said his lawyers advised he wait it out in jail while they worked on his appeal.
He said that Al-Abbar’s position as a senior advisor to Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, intimidated others into staying quiet. But Lombard said he was not afraid of the police, the Sheik, or Al-Abbar.
“I’m challenging him,” Lombard said of the Al-Abbar and the lawsuit. “You can’t just push everyone around because you are a billionaire and a friend of the ruler. You are no different than the migrant worker — not just in my eyes but in the eyes of the prophet.”
The justification given to Lombard for the first imprisonment was a charge of sexually assaulting a woman. Lombard said the charge was false, but that he could not tell the judge that he was gay, as consensual homosexual sex is punished with a 10-year prison sentence in Dubai.
Despite the archaic laws, Lombard, who has lived all over the globe, called Dubai “the gayest city I have ever lived in.”
After three months in jail, Lombard said he was able to pay his way out. He then began to start his life over, he said. His business was gone. Shortly after he was released, his house was ransacked.
Just over a year later, Lombard was doing well, putting the three-month imprisonment behind him and starting a new business. But in June of 2008, while meeting with his new business partner at a Starbucks in Abu Dhabi, Lombard said he was approached by the city’s secret police. After he identified himself, he was arrested and taken to prison.
The reasons for his second imprisonment kept changing, and judges often couldn’t locate any records on his case at all, Lombard said. One initial reason given was a bad check, but that was never proven, he said. When he was processed, Lombard said he was told that his sentence was indefinite, and that he was there “because of Al Abbar, and Emaar.” Lombard said the people processing him told him he wasn’t supposed to mess with Al Abbar.
To this day, Lombard said he has never been given a reason for why he was imprisoned for more than a year and a half.
While in jail, Lombard said he spent his time observing the other prisoners and the way the prison was run, writing affirmations and working on getting out.
When he contacted the U.S. Embassy and Consulate, he said that they told him they knew he was there unlawfully, but they had to respect the laws of a sovereign country.
He said he at one point he was shackled in a cell with his hands attached to his ankles behind his back, without food or water, or air-conditioning in the middle of the desert. He was often harassed by guards for his race and sexual orientation, he said.
Then one day — out of nowhere — he said he was released and told that all charges were dropped. Five hours later he had a new passport and was on a plane home.
Lombard said over the past three years of making requests to the U.S. government, he’s received documents that verify when and where he was imprisoned and the stated reasons for imprisonment. But he said he still needs the notes from the U.S. Consulate in which he claimed that Al Abbar and Emaar Properties were the reason for his imprisonment.
Lombard said he is also missing additional court documents and notes from the U.S. ambassador and consul general of Dubai.
In a January email from Brock Dupre, the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to assist Lombard with his FOIA request, Dupre told Lombard that, “The offices indicated that any and all documents located have previously been identified and released to you … I have complied with the Court’s instructions and have requested supplemental searches be performed to locate the specific material you have identified. Unfortunately, these searches did not recover any additional documents.”
Lombard said he has also reached out to his senators and congressman for assistance.
While Lombard is fighting for the two years of his life he lost while in prison, he said his battle still goes back to those migrant workers.
“A lot of people went through a lot of things for me to be where I am,” Lombard said. “It’s important to continue to make life better for those less fortunate.”