TAMPA — The detention of a Belleair Bluffs man in the United Arab Emirates on charges of cyber slander has ballooned into a diplomatic incident that a local congressman says could have a "chilling effect" on free speech in the United States.
Ryan Pate, a 30-year-old helicopter mechanic, was on leave in Florida when he made disparaging remarks about his UAE-based employer, Global Aerospace Logistics, and Arabs on Facebook, he said. Three days later, on Feb. 2, he returned to the UAE.
Abu Dhabi police arrested Pate on Feb. 16 and charged him with cyber slander. Jillian Cardoza, his fiancee, said he spent 11 days in prison before being released on bail and forced to turn over his passport.
Cardoza said Pate could face a fine and prison time.
Airing frustrations about the way he had been treated by the company after a back injury and a close relative's death, Pate wrote in a Facebook group for helicopter mechanics, warning its 400 members against working for Global Aerospace Logistics. He recalls referring to his bosses as "backstabbers."
"Then I went on to say some much more derogatory things that I will not repeat,'' he said in a Skype interview Tuesday with the Times.
Pate said he heard that a fellow employee read his comments and reported them to the company's human relations department, which then notified police.
"What I did was wrong, and I apologize profusely, and to my ever-living shame it will follow me," he said.
The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday. The Emirati embassy in the United States also did not respond to a call for comment.
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, said he has reviewed charging documents in the case. Timestamps in screen shots of the Facebook posts correspond to the period when Pate was in the United States, he said. Pate's Facebook page has been deactivated, according to Cardoza.
"You have an American citizen engaged in entirely lawful activity on U.S. soil, and then detained in a foreign country," Jolly said. "It is chilling, but it should be of grave concern to our State Department and to Congress."
Jolly has sent letters to Secretary of State John Kerry and the Emirati attorney general, imploring the State Department to intervene and the UAE to grant Pate clemency. The congressman emphasized that he does not condone Pate's words, but that "the singular issue here is that this activity occurred on U.S. soil."
An official from the State Department confirmed that Pate was arrested on Feb. 16 in Abu Dhabi and said a consular officer visited him on Feb. 19 in Al Wathba Prison. The department is providing "all possible consular assistance," the official said.
As he sat in jail, Pate said it was hard for him to process what was happening. At 6 feet 8, he was too tall for most Emirati prison jumpsuits, which are color-coded according to a suspect's alleged crime. The only set that fit him was branded with red stripes, a distinction for murderers.
"In the United States, you're raised with the First Amendment ingrained in you," Pate said. "It took me a couple days for it to sink in."
Experts in defamation law said First Amendment protections may not help Pate.
"Americans have a tendency to assume that other countries have the same laws we do when in fact they don't, and that comments on social media don't have consequences and they do," said Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky, a professor and associate dean for international programs at the University of Florida's College of Law.
When it comes to defamation law, she said, jurisdiction lies not where the comments are made, but where their effects are felt. Once Pate returned to the UAE, he was within its jurisdiction, she said, and subject to its laws.
"The problem is that some social media sites make you feel like you're just talking to friends, but often your speech is available around the world, and that can have serious consequences," Lidsky said.
In the United States, defamation claims are civil matters, not criminal cases. In most Middle Eastern countries, she said, that's not the case.
"Certainly, something Americans should be mindful of when they travel is that other countries do not protect free speech to the level of the United States," said Caroline Mala Corbin, a University of Miami law professor with First Amendment expertise.
Cardoza has launched a GoFundMe page to help cover the costs of Pate's legal defense.
"It's easy for people to judge him in this situation," she said, but "people make mistakes and does the punishment fit the crime?"
The family has hired an Emirati attorney, according to Cardoza, and his fees are already up to $40,000. Officials with the U.S. embassy in the UAE spoke with a prosecutor, Cardoza said, and relayed that authorities might seek a prison term of more than a year and a $50,000 fine.
"The scariest thing is not knowing what is going to happen," Pate said. "If I just knew what I was going to face, I would be able to face it and come to terms with it."
Times staffers Carolyn Edds, John Martin and Claire McNeill contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at email@example.com, @ZackSampson on Twitter. Contact Katie Mettler at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kemettler on Twitter.