JAILED MUM GIVES FIRST JAIL INTERVIEW- MAIL ON SUNDAY- EXCLUSIVE STORY- APRIL 2009

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'A good day is when I speak to my sons': An 'adulterous' mother speaks from her Dubai prison

MAIL ON SUNDAY NEWSPAPER


Marnie Pearce shuffles into the narrow, glass-fronted booth from where she greets visitors at Dubai's Al Awir women's jail.

Ill-fitting, dusty-pink drawstring pants and a matching shirt hang loosely on her gaunt frame she has lost nearly a stone since being imprisoned for adultery seven weeks ago.

Despite the artful application of make-up, her once glowing complexion is pale and dry. Her face is drawn into a tight mask of despair and her long, blonde hair, which was her crowning glory, reveals prominent dark roots.

Marnie Pearce and children

Marnie with her children Ziad, four, (right) and Laith, seven after being found guilty of adultery in Dubai. Her ex-husband has told her she will never see them again

The former florist from Berkshire has become an unlikely cause celebre for human rights campaigners Amnesty International has called for her immediate release since her dubious conviction under draconian Sharia law.

She was sentenced to six months, cut on appeal to three, after her former husband, an Egyptian, told police she had been having an affair. And Marnie, 40, has clearly been struggling to cope with life behind bars.

Marnie Pearce on her wedding day

Marnie and Ihab on their wedding day. Soon after they married Ihab became violent towards her, subjecting her to 'years of abuse'

She has not seen her children, Laith, eight, and Ziad, four, since she was locked up.

Her mood is erratic one minute she is defiant, the next she is crying. Her voice, undulating from a rapid rattle to a quiet murmur and peppered with occasional sobs, reflects her emotional turmoil.

'A good day is when I get to speak to my sons,' she says. 'Their father sometimes refuses to put them on the phone when I call, as arranged, in the evenings. It's his way of asserting control and, he says, to punish me.'

Today is not a good day. Marnie is distraught, her eyes red from crying. Her ex-husband, Ihab el-Labban, who under Islamic law gained custody of their sons after her imprisonment, had agreed that they would visit on Thursday, Laith's birthday.

But Ihab has flown out of the country, leaving the boys with his elderly mother.

Marnie called his mother to ask if the boys would be coming to see her. 'She just laughed and put the phone down on me,' she sobs. Ihab has threatened never to let her see the children again.

This is Marnie's first interview from behind the white walls that surround a compound of squat new buildings housing both men's and women's prisons on the outskirts of booming Dubai.

Her 'crime' was to forget that, for all its appearance of glamour and modernity, Dubai is a deeply traditional Islamic country where women have few rights.


She is the first British woman to be convicted of adultery here. Yet the paucity of evidence against her means there is a substantial element of doubt over her guilt.

Marnie describes how she spent her first night in jail curled up in a foetal position on a thin mattress. 'I was in a trance,' she says. 'I had been strip-searched. I was in such a state that I didn't even react at the time. But I later learned that it doesn't happen to every female prisoner.

'For a week I didn't get out of bed. I didn't eat anything because the food was all blended together and I had no utensils.

'We're expected to eat with our hands and I physically couldn't do it. Eventually the British Embassy sent in a plastic spoon.'

Although she is reluctant to criticise conditions in the prison, she complains that the tiny cell she shares with five other women is cramped and offers no privacy.

'It's horrible,' she says. 'We share a toilet, which has no door on it.

'I was on my period when I came in and had some tampons with me. They were confiscated. Even though I tried to explain what they were for, the guards insisted that they were forbidden. I had nothing until an Embassy official came to see me two days later.'

For someone whose privileged lifestyle included an immaculate three-bedroom luxury villa with swimming pool, a live-in maid and a four-wheel-drive vehicle, being locked up with common criminals one inmate chopped up her boyfriend and ate parts of his body has been deeply humiliating.

'At first I cried all the time,' recalls Marnie. 'The noise here is unrelenting. Loudspeakers relay information throughout the prison 24/7. I no sooner drop off
to sleep when the crackle, followed by loud Arabic, wakes me up.'

The wailing of other women or the crying of children who are confined with their mothers on her wing there are about a dozen ranging from newborn to age 13 add to the cacophony.


'I fret over the fate of my boys,' she says, tears running down her cheeks.

'I miss them dearly. I can't even begin to put into words my feelings of desperation, loss and fear.

'It's like something's been driven through my chest. I worry about who is looking after them. Ihab loves them, but he travels a lot for work. I was their full-time carer. Now it's the maid.'

Marnie's nightmare began on March 27 last year when police raided the family home in a smart suburb of Dubai. They found her inside with Brian Clark, also British, who was visiting from Saudi Arabia.

Marnie was arrested and Ihab, 41, claimed she was having an affair. The family's Indonesian maid, whose salary he pays, gave supportive evidence.

Under strict Muslim edict, it is unlawful for a woman to be alone in her home with a man, other than her husband or a family member.

The rule is rarely enforced for Westerners. And Marnie certainly hadn't concerned herself because in the past Ihab had always held liberal views on such matters. She had not counted on him exploiting the system to avoid an expensive Western divorce and custody battle.

'Ihab set me up,' Marnie insists, jabbing her finger as she becomes increasingly animated. 'I did nothing wrong. He bribed the maid to spy on me and then planted used condoms as evidence.'

The legal fallout of this bitter domestic break-up has shocked Dubai's large British expat community. Many regularly flout the desert kingdom's strict religious code on male and female relationships. Some, however, criticise Marnie for showing poor judgment.

With hindsight, she privately accepts that she should have behaved with
more circumspection.

But believing her marriage to be over, she felt ready to move on with her life. She says she and Ihab had kept separate bedrooms for three years before they split. Although they still had sex, she says she only agreed to this out of fear.

'He physically and mentally abused me for ten years,' says Marnie. 'He's a control freak. He wants custody to punish me for ending the marriage. And that was only after I'd found out that he'd been having a relationship with an American woman for 17 months.

'I suffered his beatings and mental bullying because I didn't want my children to be without their father. In December 2007, he confessed to seeing an American woman called Tonya Thompson and I asked him to leave. He was angry that I threw him out. So he planned to take away the two most precious things in my life our sons.'

Her deep-set blue eyes stare bleakly through the glass screen. 'I just can't believe this is happening,' she adds.

Prison had not been part of the future she imagined for herself when she set off from Bracknell in 1996.

She travelled to the Arab state of Oman, working as a florist at the InterContinental Hotel. It was there that she met Ihab, an Egyptian working for pharmaceutical giant Procter & Gamble.

'He was unlike any other man I had dated,' she recalls. 'He was exciting, super-charming, intelligent and not at all religious.'

Marnie had left school at 16 without any academic qualifications. 'I had no particular ambitions, except to live somewhere warm,' she says candidly.

Ihab was ambitious and destined to climb the corporate ladder. He would have seemed a good catch for any woman. They set up house together in 1997. Not long afterwards, she says, he lost his temper and hit her over the head with a 'brick-like' object.

Immediately contrite and apologetic, he vowed that it would never happen again. They were married in the Seychelles a year later in a civil service, but the abuse started again when they moved to Dubai.

'If I answered back I would get a slap,' she says. 'He knocked me down a flight of stairs once and I had to go to the Welcare Hospital for a CT scan because I had terrible head pains. Another time he hit me so hard I suffered hearing problems and went to the Emirates Hospital.

'He hated it if I challenged him in any way. I was beaten during both pregnancies he spat at me, called me a dog in front of shop assistants and generally undermined me.

In September 2004, he slapped me in the face when we were out at a shopping mall with his mother. She blamed me for provoking him by not doing as I was told.'

In a sworn affidavit for her lawyer, Marnie lists other incidents of domestic abuse. Yet she never once reported Ihab to the police or, for that matter, attempted to leave him.

'I have no money of my own,' she says by way of explanation. 'Everything is in his name. Even my residency visa was through his job. I would have lost everything.'

As well as their luxury home in Dubai, Marnie and Ihab who earns about 9,000 a month had a five-bedroom holiday home in Sharm el-Sheikh and five investment flats in Egypt and Dubai.

The irony is that, in fact, she has now lost everything. The greatest loss, however, is that of her precious children.

Condemned as yet another Westerner intent on eroding the country's moral standing, Marnie sees herself as the victim of a society where women have few rights.

As one prominent Muslim woman in Dubai explained: 'If a man wants to destroy his wife, he only has to say she is an adulteress, find two witnesses to support him and she loses everything no alimony, no custody. Men have all the power here.'

Recalling the afternoon police raided her house, Marnie says: 'My husband was with them when they burst in. Brian was on the balcony having a cigarette and I was downstairs making a cup of tea.

'Ihab screamed that he had been watching me for five weeks and that it was worth waiting to see the look on my face. At the police station, he told Brian that he would have "mercy" on him if he left me alone, but that I was going to prison.'

In fact, the Britons were released after five hours due to a lack of evidence. Marnie is adamant that they were just friends.

'Brian is the brother-in-law of a friend,' she insists. 'He was only there to help with my computer. We have never had sex.'

They had first met in September 2007, when Brian visited his family in Dubai. 'We then spoke on the phone in January 2008,' says Marnie. 'He came again in February 2008, after my separation, and helped to put up a mirror in my house. We were not having an affair.'

But she does admit that they kept in touch over the internet and that she found him attractive.

Ihab discovered the friendship while searching through Marnie's personal emails.

He, in the meantime, was involved with Tonya, a mother of two and businesswoman whom he met at a sales conference in Dubai. Tonya visited him early in 2008 and he took her to Oman and Egypt for an extended holiday. Marnie believes that Ihab plans to get a job transfer to America.

After the police raid, Ihab moved back into the family home. But following a violent row, Marnie took the boys and went into a battered women's shelter.

Then, 11 weeks after the raid, he went to the police with the five used condoms he said had been taken from Marnie's bins and kept in a freezer.

Corruption is rife among the country's poorly paid police force and bribes are not unknown, even among members of the judiciary.

Marnie's trial last November was, she contends, little more than farce. 'I wasn't allowed to give evidence in court,' she says. 'It was all in Arabic. The conviction was a done deal.'

Distraught after her first appeal failed in January, she went on the run with the boys.

With the help of friends, who provided safe houses, they disappeared for 21 days.

'I wanted to spend time with them,' she says. 'To prepare them for what was going to happen to me. Ihab wanted to tell them that I had gone away. I didn't want to lie to them.

'I wanted them to know the truth to know that I had not abandoned them.'

When her second appeal was rejected in February, she handed the boys over to their father on the steps of the court. 'They were crying and clinging to me,' she sobs.

'I could have taken them in here with me but it would have been selfish. I didn't want to disrupt their lives.'

Glancing around the bleak jail she sighs: 'Anyway, I wouldn't want them to have this experience as a memory.'

She claims Ihab continued his vendetta even after her incarceration. First Marnie was dragged to court in handcuffs to hear that she had lost her rights to custody of the children. Then, in similar circumstances, she stood in the dock for what turned out to be an Islamic divorce.

'Ihab sat there smirking,' says Marnie. 'He'd brought two men to swear that we'd had a religious marriage. It was a lie. The documents were false. I tried to speak out but no one was listening. I had no lawyer.'

Last night Ihab rebutted his ex- wife's claims, insisting that he suffered physical and emotional abuse from Marnie.

'She's a narcissist, a liar and very aggressive,' he says. 'She has been judged by the standards of our laws and found guilty by the highest judges in the land. I have kept the children away from her for their psychological wellbeing.'

Having served more than half her sentence, Marnie is clinging to the vain hope that she might be able to remain in Dubai.

The truth is that deportation and lifetime exclusion are as certain as was her conviction. Yet she refuses to be bowed. She has set up a website www.costapages.com/savemarniesbabies.

'It's not over yet,' she declares defiantly, wandering back to her cell.

'He has custody only under religious law. And that's valid only on Islamic soil. The minute he moves with them to America, or any other Western country, I will have my day in court.

'I'll share custody but I'll never give up my children.'




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