Andrea Costantino says he has been in tiny room since release from prison on ‘totally unfounded’ charges of funding terrorism
An Italian man trapped for six months in his country’s embassy in the UAE has claimed he is the victim of a diplomatic spat between the two states and pleaded with Giorgia Meloni’s government to bring him home.
Andrea Costantino, 49, said he had been living a “Groundhog day-like” existence in a tiny room at the Italian embassy in Abu Dhabi since being released in late May from the emirate’s notorious maximum-security prison, Al Wathba, where he spent more than a year on charges of funding terrorism in war-torn Yemen after shipping a cargo of diesel to a client there.
Costantino, an oil trader, is unable to leave the UAE until he pays a €275,000 (£236,000) fine for the charges, which he said were “totally unfounded”.
“I sleep for no more than a couple of hours a night as I have continuous nightmares, about the time in prison and now this ongoing nightmare of being trapped here – it feels as if I have been buried alive,” he added.
Costantino was arrested by police officers from a special UAE unit in March 2021 in the Fairmont hotel on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, where he was with his wife and daughter.
He established a company in Dubai in 2012 and had spent most of his time in the emirate since then, doing business with Middle East countries, until his arrest, which centred on a cargo of diesel he shipped from Fujairah in the UAE to a client in Yemen in early 2016.
A Saudi Arabia-UAE coalition has since 2015 been at war in Yemen, supporting Yemen’s government against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, defined by the coalition as a terrorist organisation.
Costantino said the shipment was authorised under a humanitarian permit issued by the Saudi-UAE coalition with the ultimate client for the diesel, which was intended to be used to power generators for schools and hospitals, being the Yemen Petroleum Company. He also received clearance for the shipment from the UAE authorities.
However, UAE prosecutors alleged that the cargo’s intermediary recipient was a man associated with the Houthis who was placed on Saudi Arabia’s “most wanted” list in late 2017.
Costantino, whose passport is with UAE authorities, must pay the fine before being able to leave. He said he had lost 15kg (34lb) during the ordeal and could not leave the embassy as he risked being re-rearrested.
“I wake up feeling nauseous,” he said. “Then I prepare a coffee – at least I can do that here as in prison it wasn’t possible. Then I do some exercise in order to try and clear my mind of the nightmares. Then I spend the day speaking to my family and as many other people as I can by phone, although wifi is limited.”
Costantino has two children, including a son from his first marriage who he said was being bullied at school by children calling his father a terrorist.
Costantino, who lost his business and savings, uses his father’s credit card to order food online. “Although most of the time I forget to eat,” he said. His father is trying to raise money to secure his release.
Costantino’s arrest came two months after Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s former foreign minister, announced on social media that Italy had revoked the sale of thousands of missiles and aircraft bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of their use in Yemen. Di Maio described the move as “a clear message of peace coming from our country” that showed an “unbreakable commitment” to human rights.
In June 2021 the UAE ordered Italy to move its forces out of the Al Minhad military airbase in Dubai in apparent retaliation for the arms embargo. Di Maio came under fire in Italy and the UAE for poorly communicating his decision to the two Gulf countries, which has in turn drawn further criticism in the Gulf and Europe on his emergence as the frontrunner for the EU’s special envoy role to the region.
Costantino believes that he is the victim of the diplomatic tensions.
He said: “When the prosecutor interviewed me a few days after my arrest, he spent about 20 minutes asking me questions about Italy. It was crazy.”
A spokesperson for Di Maio said the arrest had nothing to do with the former foreign minister, adding that Di Maio had intervened to have Costantino released from prison and transferred to the embassy.
In a video last summer, the then opposition leader, Meloni, who became Italy’s prime minister in October, described Costantino’s arrest as “totally unjustified”, adding that he was “paying the high price for strong tensions” between Italy and the UAE and risked “becoming the hostage” of the tensions. She urged the Italian government, at the time led by Mario Draghi, to “move quickly” to bring him home to Italy.
Costantino said his appeals for help in getting released, to the former and current Italian governments, had been met with silence. “I now plead to Meloni to please maintain her promises to ask the UAE leaders to let me come back to Italy,” he said.