Ex-Leeds United boss David Haigh: '˜I could see the Dubai everyone else sees, but also the dungeon below it'

A business trip to the Middle East was the start of a two-year prison ordeal for ex-Leeds United director David Haigh. He spoke to Rob Parsons.

Former Leeds United Managing Director David Haigh

As he sat in his office in Dubai in May 2014, a few weeks after resigning as managing director of Leeds United, waiting for a business meeting to start, David Haigh was oblivious to the dramatic change of course his life was about to take.

After flying over for talks with his former employer Gulf Finance House (GFH) about setting up a private equity investment house, Mr Haigh describes being confronted by a local policeman who wanted to speak to him about an irregularity with a cheque.

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Former Leeds United Managing Director David Haigh

The 38-year-old, who led GFH’s negotiations with ex-Leeds United owner Ken Bates in 2012, says he was taken to a nearby police station where he attempted to re-pay the relatively small amount of money owed.

“Then they say there is something else, they take me to a room at the side”, he said: “They keep me waiting for an hour, then another hour, and then a lady came in and said ‘did you take 23 million?’. I said ‘what do you mean’, she said ‘GFH. 23 million. Where is it?’.

This accusation, which ultimately saw him convicted in 2015, was the start of a two-year ordeal which saw him incarcerated for many months in “horrific” conditions in the Bur Dubai police centre and subjected to frequent attacks.

He said: “At that time, imagine, I had gone from running a football club, to having stomach surgery, to getting on a plane, to landing, to sitting in a police station, being whacked in the face by some dodgy police guy wearing a green uniform, shouting at me in Arabic ‘where is the money’.”

Salah Nooruddin and David haigh meet fans at Elland Road in 2013

After being told he was not getting bail, he describes being led down a corridor to the cramped centre without further explanation of the charges against him.

He said: “I will never forget, the smell got so bad as you walked towards the door where they were going to put you in. It was horrific, a mixture of everything you don’t want to smell in your life.

“They opened this iron door and pushed me in, and slammed it shut. There were no papers, or ‘this is what you have been accused of’, that was it.

“I was in a block that was built for 32. At most times there was between 50 and 100 people there. The AC wasn’t working, the toilet was a hole in the ground. The food I couldn’t eat, because I could only have a liquid diet and the food was disgusting in any event.

Former Leeds United Managing Director David Haigh

“It was pretty horrific. It was hot, it was dirty, there were piles of rubbish everywhere, there were holes in the ground that were meant to be toilets that were leaking everywhere.

“Outside there was a hole in the roof where there was some metal grating, and you could see the towers of Dubai. You can see the Dubai that everyone else sees, but you can also see the dungeon below it.”

In late 2015, he was convicted of “breach of trust” for defrauding GFH of £3m by falsifying invoices and diverting money into accounts controlled by him.

In the months that led up to this, Mr Haigh says he struggled to defend himself against the accusations against a background of regular abuse and beatings of his fellow inmates.

Salah Nooruddin and David haigh meet fans at Elland Road in 2013

His worldwide assets were frozen, meaning he was unable to access the medicine he needed following recent stomach surgery, and initially could not speak to his lawyers for more than two minutes a week.

He said: “You are surrounded by this depravity. I will never forget, I was sitting there and the police are torturing a guy behind me.

“I don’t know what he had done, but they had thrown him on the floor, tasering him, kicking him in the head, three or four of them, getting a catapult, putting it on his testicles.

“The mental anguish that puts you through, that you are under a constant threat of abuse, that continued all the way through.

“A month before I left where I was recently, I was standing in the corridor waiting to get some painkillers and a guard came and hit me over the head with a broom handle for no apparent reason.”

He added: “I had some amazing friends who pulled me through. My friends in Dubai, when they found out what happened to me they ran and helped. There was this one amazing girl.

“It is often the case that a lot of people vanish and situations like this. You have a lot of fair-weather friends, and I had a lot. So many used to hang around me and take things and when you need them they go. But I have some amazing foul-weather friends.”

Mr Haigh was finally released from jail nearly two years later. His time in custody was extended a few days before he was due to finish his original sentence when he was accused of abusing GFH on Twitter, an offence of which he was later cleared.

Earlier this year, Mr Haigh’s case was taken up by Human Rights Watch, which said authorities should drop the cyber-slander charges, release Mr Haigh and scrap the law that criminalises slander.

The influential human rights organisation criticised the Middle Eastern nation’s “repressive” cybercrime laws.

The organisation added Mr Haigh has had hearings to consider his case postponed six times since being detained in November.

After returning to the UK last month and spending time with his family, Mr Haigh was in London this week to discuss his plans with his legal team.

He spoke to The Yorkshire Post from his suite at the Soho Hotel, a regular venue for meetings with Leeds United top brass during his time at the club. Occasionally he breaks off to take a call on his mobile phone, whose protective case bears the Leeds United crest.

He lost around 40 kilos in weight during his time in Dubai, and is strikingly different in the flesh to images of him from 2013. The impact on his health, he says, has been “kind of bad”.

“The abuse I suffered, I was punched around, I was hit, I was tasered. People attempted to sexually abuse me.

“I have a problem with my eyes, you are constantly kept in the dark, the lights are very rarely on, so you can’t see properly, it damages your eyes.

“Just the unbelievable stress you go through, you are trying to defend yourself and tell the world.”

In May, Mr Haigh’s sister Ali Thomas told of the “devastating effect” her brother’s incarceration had on their family. The mother-of-three, who lives in Cornwall, said last year that she had to quit her job as a language teacher because the strain meant she couldn’t focus on her role.

Mr Haigh said the impact on the family had been “disastrous”.

He said: “My parents are getting on a bit, my sister, she is a family woman with three young kids, one of them is not well. It takes a lot of effort.

“When I actually got here I was a bit shell-shocked. I was in this horrendous situation, and from that, taken on a first class flight, on Emirates, to London, and then home. This was one of the most shocking but happy events ever.”

In the short term, he plans to start work getting his original conviction and the worldwide freezing of his assets overturned. He said: “I am here this week speaking to lawyers and then I will be getting medical treatment for my eyes and the stress and all sorts of horrible things that have happened to me. After that my legal fightback needs to begin.”