A student faces being jailed in a UAE prison for a year after she was accused of “assaulting and insulting” staff while transiting through the airport in Dubai.

Elizabeth Polanco De Los Santos, 21, had intended to spend just six hours in the terminal as she transited from Istanbul, Turkey, to her home city of New York.

But a charity representing her said she endured “degrading, painful and humiliating searches” and was later detained following an altercation with local authorities. The student then spent months in the Emirate fighting a legal battle while having to spend around £41,000 on expenses and court costs.

She now fears that she will be locked up in Al Awir prison in Dubai, which activists have criticised for its brutal treatment of inmates.

The charity Detained in Dubai, which represents people fighting legal action in the UAE, said Elizabeth may be permitted to return to the US in the coming days.

But founder Radha Stirling said the young woman was still facing the possibility of completing her whole sentence in the foreign country.

She said: “Elizabeth is extremely worried that she will be detained in the notorious Al Awir prison and won’t (as promised) be allowed to leave the country.

“Even if she is allowed to be deported tomorrow, she will remain in prison until then, not knowing whether there will be further delays or whether in fact, she will end up forced to serve the whole sentence.

“This is an extreme situation for a 21-year-old to go through.”

She added: “Elizabeth’s experience transiting through Dubai International Airport has left our organisation, Detained in Dubai, calling for increased travel warnings to US citizens.”

Ms Stirling said Elizabeth’s ordeal began as she was making her way through the international hub of Dubai Airport on 14 July.

She claims the student was “humiliated and traumatised” by staff and later denied the chance to leave the country.

“Elizabeth only intended to transit through Dubai for six hours but she’s been there for months on end and has lost $50,000 in expenses and lawyers costs,” said Ms Stirling.

“On top of being humiliated and traumatised by airport staff, Elizabeth has suffered months of being forced to stay in an expensive country, pay expensive lawyers and miss out on her university studies.

“The US Embassy and Elizabeth’s congressional representative, Ritchie Torres have been kept up to date regarding case developments, but further diplomatic efforts must be made on an urgent basis in order to secure her freedom.

“It is completely unnecessary to send this poor girl to prison and we have seen how easily promises of release can be withdrawn.”

Ms Stirling said this was not the first time an American citizen had been arrested while they passed through Dubai International Airport, where up to 1,100 flights land each day.

She said others were victims of alleged scams in the country and suggested passengers should think twice about using the terminal in the future.

Social media influencer Tierra Allen (Sassy Trucker) was stuck in the country for months after falling victim to a rental car extortion scheme, while Peter Clark was held for residual hashish found in his bloodstream that he’d legally smoked in Las Vegas long before his visit.

“Is this the kind of transport hub that people would want to choose?”

Elizabeth is now waiting to hear if she will be allowed to leave the country in the next few days, before her sentence is completed.

“She’s now been told she has a one-year prison sentence but that if all ‘goes well’, she will only be detained until she can book a flight out of the UAE,” said Ms Stirling.

“American citizens need to be aware that Dubai is a dangerous place to visit.

“Any country where a mere unevidenced allegation can result in lengthy imprisonment is an unacceptable choice for tourists and Dubai needs to work hard to stop this kind of legal abuse.”

Dubai Airport has been contacted for comment.