Diving assistant returns home

As young South African flies out of the UAE, her father's Facebook tirade expresses disgust at the legal system that jailed his daughter.

"Diving is my world," says Roxanne Hillier.
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Roxanne Hillier has finally flown out of the UAE, fearful right up until the wheels of her aircraft left the runway yesterday that she might be taken back to prison. The 22-year-old South African diving assistant was released from jail on Thursday, having served more than two-thirds of a three-month sentence after being convicted of having sex outside marriage.

She was arrested on May 16 during a late-night police raid on the Khor Fakkan diving centre, in Sharjah, where she worked. Ms Hillier was asleep in an upstairs room while her boss, MH, an Emirati in his 40s, was checking diving equipment. They were convicted of having sex and being alone in a commercial building after hours. MH was released in June, after his term was reduced on appeal. However, the court confirmed Ms Hillier's sentence.

She has always denied any improper contact took place and said she would not feel secure in her freedom until she was out of the UAE. "I think once I'm out of the country and I know they can't pick me up, it'll be a weight off my shoulders," she said before boarding an Ethiopian Airways jet at Dubai International Airport. Ms Hillier said she was immeasurably grateful for the thousands of messages of support she had received. She was still "in shock" about her release and would have to get home before assessing the long-term impact of her ordeal. "It's like all my plans for the future have been broken," she said, "and I've got to start all over again."

Ms Hillier's plight attracted worldwide attention with more than 2,700 people joining a support group for her on Facebook. Another 1,500 signed a petition urging Jacob Zuma, the South African president, to apply diplomatic pressure to win her freedom. In the end it was an apparent pardon from Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, Ruler of Sharjah, that led to her release. Roxanne's father, Freddie Hillier, an Albania-based engineer, refrained from criticising UAE authorities while his daughter was in prison to avoid endangering any chance of release.

Once he knew she was safely in the air, however, he unleashed a torrent on her Facebook support page revealing his frustration at the way her case had been handled. "All of this saying thank you to your captors and minding your Ps and Qs is over," he said. "I am disgusted with the legal system in the UAE. "They took your dream and turned it into a nightmare. They humiliated you and took away your dignity. They put you in prison for something that you did not do. They have tried to ruin your future.

"I am angry and can go on saying [this] but it won't help you. My darling Roxanne, try to put this behind you and move on with your life. You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Keep your head up and look the world square in the eye." Roxanne's younger sister, Maxine, had also been working in the UAE, at an Abu Dhabi diving operation. She left the country earlier this month amid family fears that she too could fall foul of the legal system.

Roxanne Hillier said she had been loving her life in the east coast Sharjah town and was looking forward to a future in the Emirates when the police raid put a halt to her plans. "I liked the UAE and liked my job," she said. "Khor Fakkan was beautiful, it was a small town with the desert, the mountains and the sea. "Then this - going into jail - happened. It's been hard on me and with everything my parents have gone through."

While others campaigned for her release, her family flew to Sharjah to support her. On prison visits they brought her messages of support from around the world to keep her spirits up. "I'm utterly shocked," she said. "And I don't know how I'll be able to thank them all ... seeing all these people praying for me and all these people fighting for me made me feel like that in the long tunnel, I could actually see light."

Her release came completely out of the blue, a simple call on Wednesday to go to the police station the next morning. "The captain said I've been released," she said. "I just looked at him, thinking 'Huh?' I thought there must be some mistake." She was told she would not be deported but would be able to leave of her own accord. That gave her the opportunity to dive once more off Khor Fakkan, and to do so with her former boss. It was a happy outing, even if she did not accomplish her ambition of spotting a sea horse.

"Diving is ... my world," she said. "It's the only place where I can relax. If I had gills, I'd be a happy fish." After being reunited with family and friends, Ms Hillier plans to rebuild her life and put what happened in Sharjah behind her. "It's been hard emotionally and physically tiring, I haven't quite ... sorted out the emotions." jhenzell@thenational.ae