TAMPA — Frustrated with his employer in the United Arab Emirates, Ryan Pate, a civilian helicopter mechanic from Belleair Bluffs, criticized the company and made a rash, derogatory comment toward Arabs on Facebook while back home in January.
Last month, when he returned to the UAE to work out his employment issues, Pate received a call from the Abu Dhabi police directing him to come in.
“I didn’t know why and they wouldn’t tell me,” said Pate, 30, a 2005 graduate of Largo High School.
After arriving at the police station, Pate said he was accused of violating an Emerati cybercrimes law for slandering his employer, which brought the charges against him. Pate said he was arrested and taken to jail. Now free on bail, he is scheduled to stand trial March 17 and could face up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Back home in Tampa, his fiancee, Jillian Cardoza, created a GoFundMe.com account to help pay his legal fees, raising more than $15,000 of her $60,000 goal in just a few days.
After learning about Pate’s arrest, U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who represents the district where Pate grew up, sent letters to Secretary of State John Kerry and Ali Mohammed Abdullah Al Bloushi, the Emerati attorney general, calling for Pate’s release on the charge of cyber slander against the UAE and his employers.
Jolly, who read the messages and describes them as “very offensive,” said he respects the sovereignty of the UAE but added that Pate posted them from the United States while he was under the free speech protections afforded by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“As such it is deeply troubling that Mr. Pate now faces judicial proceedings over an action that was done legally in his home country,” Jolly wrote.
Cardoza said Jolly’s assistance has been “extremely helpful.”
“He or his office has been in touch with us every day,” she said. “Honestly, I could hot have handled this situation without his help.”
Cardoza added that neither she or her fiance can condone Pate’s comments.
Speaking via phone from his apartment in Abu Dhabi, Pate was remorseful.
“I just want to apologize to everybody I dragged into this,” he said. “It is embarrassing, and I never meant for this to happen. I let my emotions get the better of me.”
Pate said that when he went on Facebook to “warn people against working for my company,” Global Aerospace Logistics. “I wasn’t as tactful as I could have been.”
In addition to slamming the company, he made disparaging racial remarks, referring to “filthy Arabs,” according to Cardoza.
He said he was surprised by his arrest.
“I didn’t think that a Facebook post made in the U.S. under the First Amendment rights would get me thrown in jail in the Middle East.”
The charges of making disparaging remarks against Arabs were dropped, Pate said.
“I was told that what I said was a generalization and did not directly insult this country,” he said. “I did directly insult the company and management. Those are the charges.”
Efforts to reach Global Aerospace Logistics were unsuccessful. Neither State Department nor the UAE’s embassy in Washington, D.C., immediately responded to requests for comment.
Jolly said he is hoping for a meeting with the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S. to discuss Pate’s case.
Four original charges against Pate — cyber slander against Islam, cyber slander against the UAE, cyber slander against his employer and cyber slander against management — were reduced to the latter two.
The State Department has helped Pate obtain counsel and adequate health care, showing the Emeratis that the U.S. has an interest in the case, Jolly said — a move it might not have made had Pate been arrested on a charge that didn’t challenge American principles.
Jolly said he hopes the State Department responds to his letter soon.
Cardoza, a Navy chief petty officer acting on her own time and independent of the service, said she created the GoFundMe site to raise money to help pay for an attorney and get her fiance home.
“Our goal is to bring him home and not have him serve prison time,” Cardoza said. “My secondary goal is for people to understand the laws over there. I never heard of anything like this before. Even the U.S. Embassy was confused.”
The funding, said Cardoza, is critical.
“We do have an attorney, but we have to pay him,” she said. “He needs the money in the next two days. Right now, I have taken all my savings and given it to this situation.”
Pate said he has been working on an open-ended contract since December 2012 as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter mechanic for Global Aerospace Logistics.
But at 6-foot-8, he started experiencing back problems and was trying to leave the company. U.S. doctors confirmed he needed to stop working and the company, he said, wanted to get a second opinion in the UAE.
Pate said there were rumors swirling around his company that he was not coming back and the company froze his pay, prompting his online outburst.
“I got real upset,” he said. “I was having problems with the company for the past four or five months.”
After being arrested Feb. 16, Pate said he spent a total of about 10 days in jail before being let out on bail, which consisted of turning over his passport to police.
“Being a white American in a Middle Eastern prison wasn’t good,” he said. “But I am guessing it wasn’t as bad as I was thinking.”
While at the police station and in jail, Pate said he was made to sign forms, in Arabic, that he could not read. When he was transferred to the Wathba Prison, it took a few days for U.S. Embassy personnel to track him down “because no one let them come see me.”
After some confusion about his nationality — he was initially listed as Indian, then Canadian — Pate said he was finally released and is now spending time in his old apartment awaiting trial.
He said he is in the process of packing his bags in case he can leave soon.
“I am just kind of taking it day by day,” he said. “I am enjoying not being in prison, but I only have another two weeks left until I find out what my sentence is. All I can do is wait.”