UK football coach living in Dubai jailed for 25 years for possessing friend’s CBD vape

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To describe the last nine months as a nightmare doesn’t quite encapsulate what Breda Guckion has endured — and continues to endure — every day. Anxiety hangs over her life like a persistent cloud.

She functions, ‘puts on her mask’, goes to work as a teaching assistant in a primary school near her home in Ladbroke Grove, West London. She meets up, as she always has, with her large, extended family, who live nearby.

But every time a phone rings, the mask is whipped away and she’s back, heart pounding, terrified, praying and snatching at hope. Who is it? What news do they have?

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The cause of her unbearable anxiety is her 24-year-old middle son, Billy Hood, who’d moved to Dubai last year to work as a football coach. Yesterday, Breda found herself referring to her son in the past tense. On days like those, she has to hide away and cry.

To describe the last nine months as a nightmare doesn't quite encapsulate what Breda Guckion (pictured) has endured — and continues to endure — every day. Anxiety hangs over her life like a persistent cloud. She functions, 'puts on her mask', goes to work as a teaching assistant in a primary school near her home in Ladbroke Grove, West London. She meets up, as she always has, with her large, extended family, who live nearby

To describe the last nine months as a nightmare doesn’t quite encapsulate what Breda Guckion (pictured) has endured — and continues to endure — every day. Anxiety hangs over her life like a persistent cloud. She functions, ‘puts on her mask’, goes to work as a teaching assistant in a primary school near her home in Ladbroke Grove, West London. She meets up, as she always has, with her large, extended family, who live nearby

‘Listen to me, I’m talking like I’m never going to see him again,’ says the 55-year-old grandmother who, in normal circumstances, you could imagine with a twinkle in her eye.

‘Hopefully I will . . . see him again’ she says, as tears threaten. You can only hope she’s right.

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Billy, you see, is very much alive, but locked up in a prison cell more than 3,000 miles away facing a sentence longer than some get for murder.

His offence? Trafficking, selling and possessing illegal drugs. Even within the context of the notoriously strict judicial confines of the UAE where there is zero-tolerance for drugs, an observer might think police quite within their rights.

Except there is a twist — the so-called ‘drugs’ found in Billy’s car were four vials of vape liquid containing CBD oil, an oil found in the cannabis plant, but without its psychoactive effects; an oil so innocuous that it’s widely available to buy, quite legally, on High Streets in the UK.

The cause of her unbearable anxiety is her 24-year-old middle son, Billy Hood, who'd moved to Dubai last year to work as a football coach. Yesterday, Breda found herself referring to her son in the past tense. On days like those, she has to hide away and cry

The cause of her unbearable anxiety is her 24-year-old middle son, Billy Hood, who’d moved to Dubai last year to work as a football coach. Yesterday, Breda found herself referring to her son in the past tense. On days like those, she has to hide away and cry

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It’s recently been a popular, seemingly harmless, recreational pastime among young ‘vapers’ who find the oil relaxing, much like tobacco.

Crucially, however, the oils and accompanying vape device, weren’t, Billy insists, even his; he doesn’t take drugs, doesn’t smoke — ‘not even shisha’ — he’s the kind of young man more likely to be hitting the gym at 6am than languishing with a hangover.

The oils had been left behind, mistakenly, by a friend who Billy had dropped at the airport two weeks previously.

Then, 12 days ago, in a terrifyingly brief 15-minute court session, he was given the maximum sentence of 25 years in prison (it would have been 27, if it hadn’t been for a blood test showing no drugs in his system).

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Except there is a twist — the so-called 'drugs' found in Billy's car were four vials of vape liquid containing CBD oil, an oil found in the cannabis plant, but without its psychoactive effects; an oil so innocuous that it's widely available to buy, quite legally, on High Streets in the UK

Except there is a twist — the so-called ‘drugs’ found in Billy’s car were four vials of vape liquid containing CBD oil, an oil found in the cannabis plant, but without its psychoactive effects; an oil so innocuous that it’s widely available to buy, quite legally, on High Streets in the UK

No wonder Breda feels, as she repeatedly puts it, ‘broken’.

‘I’m 55. When he comes out I’ll be 80. Will I even still be alive? Will I still be around for him?’

‘I never ever thought it would come to this,’ she says. ‘I thought justice would prevail. I thought they would kick him out and tell him not to come back. I thought he would be on a plane home and I think that’s what he thought, too.’

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Contact has been minimal, details scant. Billy’s phone calls can come at any time without warning and, usually, last seconds — minutes at best, before the line crackles and dies.

They’re awkward, three-way conversations via his lawyer and Billy’s older brother Alexander, 27, a plumber who is doing his best to support his mum. Breda joins in if she’s there.

‘There’s been a change in his voice from his cheery, chirpy self [since he was arrested], it breaks my heart to hear it,’ she says. ‘I think he tries to stay positive, he always asks after his nan, who lives next-door.’

On Thursday morning, there was one such call, out of the blue. She relished hearing Billy’s voice but was horrified to hear of the ‘shocking’ conditions in the jail — he still doesn’t even have a mattress to sleep on — and how he was ‘surviving’.

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‘All I could do is grab the phone and shout ‘I love you, I love you’. It was just wonderful to hear his voice,’ says Breda.

Contact has been minimal, details scant. Billy's phone calls can come at any time without warning and, usually, last seconds — minutes at best, before the line crackles and dies. They're awkward, three-way conversations via his lawyer and Billy's older brother Alexander, 27, a plumber who is doing his best to support his mum. Breda joins in if she's there

Contact has been minimal, details scant. Billy’s phone calls can come at any time without warning and, usually, last seconds — minutes at best, before the line crackles and dies. They’re awkward, three-way conversations via his lawyer and Billy’s older brother Alexander, 27, a plumber who is doing his best to support his mum. Breda joins in if she’s there

So how has it come to this, in this so-called ‘modern’ state of Dubai — the world’s number one playground for the rich and famous?

Billy’s supporters fear he was singled out by state monitoring of WhatsApp messages, looking for key words related to drugs. Drugs convictions — especially of foreigners — carry a lot of kudos and promotions, for police.

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Their suspicion that Billy was being monitored is not unrealistic paranoia: recently, it was revealed that the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, used sophisticated spyware to hack into the phones of his ex-wife and her legal team during a custody hearing.

A week before Billy’s arrest, in January, the friend who owned the vape liquid sent a message saying he’d mistakenly left it behind in his car.

By Billy’s account, he was thrown into a cell with just bread and water, tasered and beaten until he signed a document written in Arabic that would transpire to be a confession that consigned him to a police cell for the ensuing eight months.

‘Billy helps out children, coaches and volunteers. He’s never been into drugs, ever. It is impossible that he is guilty of the allegations against him,’ says Breda.

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This whole nightmarish experience is so removed from their normal, happy, bustling family life, they can’t quite believe so recently they were encouraging Billy to pursue his dreams.

Looking back, Breda can’t remember a time her middle child (Billy also has a sister) wasn’t into football. ‘Billy was like lightning, he could run faster than he could kick the ball sometimes, he always had a ball at his feet. Always,’ she says.

From school teams, Billy graduated to playing semi-professionally for Kensington and Ealing Borough FC while also studying for coaching qualifications.

The opportunity to work in Dubai came via friends early in 2020.

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‘It was a big change for him,’ says Alex. ‘But he was excited. He was happy, he had some friends already out there working and he soon made new friends, he’s a very sociable guy.’

The pandemic forcing school closures in Dubai — and the 50C summer — brought the sportsman back to the UK.

The family knew a little of the Emirate state's draconian laws and the many overseas visitors who have fallen foul of them. But as Breda and Alex say, such cases seem unreal until suddenly one of your own family is among them

The family knew a little of the Emirate state’s draconian laws and the many overseas visitors who have fallen foul of them. But as Breda and Alex say, such cases seem unreal until suddenly one of your own family is among them

But then he was recruited by two expats who wanted to employ him on their coaching team; the job came with a company car and an attractive salary so, in September 2020, he returned to Dubai — ultimately, say his family, he wanted to set up his own company coaching children in schools.

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‘It was exciting to see him embarking on a new life, a new chapter,’ says Breda. ‘He was excited to go and we thought we would go out to see him at Easter time, before it got too hot. A cheap holiday,’ she laughs.

Breda is Irish, her husband Scottish and the large family had a jolly send-off in an Irish restaurant before Billy’s uncle drove him to Gatwick airport. Breda is rueful as she recalls how relaxed she was about it all.

‘I had no worries at all. I’ve never had to worry about Billy, he would always phone or text, he would always say where he was going or what he was doing, too much sometimes!’

With an apartment, days out at the beach, friends to spend evenings with, Billy was in his element.

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The family knew a little of the Emirate state’s draconian laws and the many overseas visitors who have fallen foul of them. But as Breda and Alex say, such cases seem unreal until suddenly one of your own family is among them.

Examples are numerous. Take the case of a London-based TV producer who was detained in 2008 when an unidentified bottle of pills was found in his suitcase.

It was melatonin, a perfectly legal jetlag medication, but then customs officials announced they had also discovered cannabis among some dust in the depths of the holidaymaker’s bag.

The amount? 0.03 grams, smaller than a single grain of salt and virtually invisible to the human eye. He faced a four-year prison sentence for ‘drug possession’ that was only averted after the best part of a month in custody — and high-profile campaigning by family and friends.

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One of the most troubling elements of what has happened to Mr Hood is how sparse information from UAE has been. In fact, for several days after his arrest, Billy's family knew nothing of his plight

One of the most troubling elements of what has happened to Mr Hood is how sparse information from UAE has been. In fact, for several days after his arrest, Billy’s family knew nothing of his plight

One of the most troubling elements of what has happened to Billy Hood is how sparse information from UAE has been. In fact, for several days after his arrest, Billy’s family knew nothing of his plight.

‘Billy didn’t show up for work, which was odd,’ says Alexander. ‘Billy’s boss tried to get hold of him and when the second day came and he was still unreachable, the guy went down to the police station to report him missing. That’s when police responded: ‘We know where he is and we can’t comment further.’

‘I only found out when Billy’s boss contacted his friends.’

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Only after Billy’s ‘confession’, made under duress, was he allowed to call his family — a painfully brief conversation with Alexander that set the tone for the scant contact that has followed.

Alexander winces when he remembers it. His brother was bewildered, convinced it was all just a big mistake, he’d be out soon — the conversation was condensed, precious seconds used judiciously.

Fast-forward to Billy’s mood post-sentence. ‘He sounded broken,’ is all Alex can say about that call, echoing his mother’s words.

A statement Billy made for his legal team filled in many of the gaps. He wrote: ‘I had just moved to a new home in Dubai and a friend of mine came around to see my new place. I ordered a food delivery then went to my car to get a second phone charger for him to use when I was suddenly approached by police. They jumped out to arrest me, handcuffed me.

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One officer jumped out and pointed a Taser at me, threatening to use it if I didn’t cooperate. They demanded I show them where the drugs are. I was shocked, scared and confused.

I told them I wasn’t aware or in possession of any drugs or substances.’

Mr Hood with Aunt Dolores (left). Having been sentenced, Mr Hood has now been moved to a different prison, where he is required to wear white and have his head shaved. He's currently housed on a wing with no other Europeans, where few of the inmates speak English

Mr Hood with Aunt Dolores (left). Having been sentenced, Mr Hood has now been moved to a different prison, where he is required to wear white and have his head shaved. He’s currently housed on a wing with no other Europeans, where few of the inmates speak English

Police found £2,500 in local currency in the apartment, but Billy’s employer gave a statement confirming this was his salary, paid in cash until the footballer had a bank account set up. They found nothing in the apartment, or in Billy’s car, but wanted to search his company car, too, which is where they found the vape oils in the passenger side.

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Catapulted into a justice system which is at best opaque, at worst draconian, with no support, it’s little wonder that Billy found himself signing a document in Arabic in the hope of some kind of reprieve.

His desperation is clear in his statement: ‘I do not smoke vape pens, cigarettes or even shisha,’ he says. ‘I coach football six to seven days a week. I am always working with kids and in schools all over Dubai. From age 16, I played football at a professional level for more than two years. I have always had a zero tolerance on any drugs or illegal substances.

‘For me to be accused of promoting and selling drugs in a country that has the same beliefs and values as me is very upsetting as it affects my future.

‘One of the main reasons I moved to the UAE was to pursue my coaching career. I have spent six plus years collecting my coaching badges and would never let something such as drugs ruin everything.’

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The wheels of justice, if that’s what this is, have not turned quickly for Billy; early hearings were delayed. By contrast ‘judgment day’, as it’s termed, was painfully quick. The judge was guided, it would seem, purely by the police case.

‘We knew the worst case, but we didn’t expect it,’ says Alexander.

‘Billy always thought he would be out, he never ever thought he was going to get 25 years,’ adds Breda.

Having been sentenced, Billy has now been moved to a different prison, where he is required to wear white and have his head shaved. He’s currently housed on a wing with no other Europeans, where few of the inmates speak English.

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Mr Hood pictured with his grandmother. His desperation is clear in his statement: 'I do not smoke vape pens, cigarettes or even shisha,' he says. 'I coach football six to seven days a week. I am always working with kids and in schools all over Dubai. From age 16, I played football at a professional level for more than two years. I have always had a zero tolerance on any drugs or illegal substances'

Mr Hood pictured with his grandmother. His desperation is clear in his statement: ‘I do not smoke vape pens, cigarettes or even shisha,’ he says. ‘I coach football six to seven days a week. I am always working with kids and in schools all over Dubai. From age 16, I played football at a professional level for more than two years. I have always had a zero tolerance on any drugs or illegal substances’

His family hope they can soon send him cash — £100, once a fortnight, as they did prior to his move — so he can purchase food and make phone calls.

They know he will probably share it with others in need, ‘some of the men he was with before had nothing and no one, helping is just what he’s like’.

I ask if they have considered flying to Dubai. But they are too terrified to contemplate it. ‘I’d give anything to see him,’ says Breda. ‘But I don’t think I could go out there. I think I would be frightened to step off the plane.’

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They have taken huge solace in the support they have had from the campaign group Detained In Dubai, which is campaigning on their behalf, but this is more than can be said for how they feel about the British Government’s involvement.

‘Dubai police’s handling of drug cases has resulted in numerous unfair detentions of foreign nationals,’ says Detained In Dubai founder Radha Stirling. ‘We’ve seen people arrested and even convicted without evidence, often on the basis of a forced confession in Arabic or on the basis of third-party witness testimony from incentivised informants.

‘Drug convictions are prestigious for police, leading to promotions and kudos. Courts do not require substantial evidence to secure a conviction.

‘They are happy to sentence people’s lives away based on third-party hearsay or a forced confession. Foreigners find it next to impossible to achieve a fair hearing and false allegations are commonplace.’

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His family hope they can soon send him cash — £100, once a fortnight, as they did prior to his move — so he can purchase food and make phone calls. They know he will probably share it with others in need, 'some of the men he was with before had nothing and no one, helping is just what he's like'

His family hope they can soon send him cash — £100, once a fortnight, as they did prior to his move — so he can purchase food and make phone calls. They know he will probably share it with others in need, ‘some of the men he was with before had nothing and no one, helping is just what he’s like’

A Foreign Office spokesman said only: ‘We are giving consular support to a British man who has been imprisoned in the UAE.’

Billy’s friends have rallied around, a GoFundMe page to help pay his legal fees — more than £12,000 so far — is growing.

On Tuesday, his appeal against his sentence will be heard.

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‘We are all devastated, everyone just wants Billy back,’ says Breda.

He’s missed so much — birthdays (his nan’s 86th), playing with his six-year-old nephew, ‘Chelsea winning the Champions League,’ chips in Alexander.

‘We are just trying to stay positive, to keep his spirits up,’ says Breda.

And hope? ‘The way things have been going on, I don’t want to get my hopes up. But if Billy were to get out next week, it would be all my Christmases come at once.’

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