Lee was born in east London on 18 June 1971, the third of four children to Doris and Vic Brown. He went to Godwin Junior School in Forest Gate, then Rokeby Secondary School. Later, when the family moved to Devon, he went to Kingsteignton Secondary School. He resided in Ilford, Essex at the time of his death.
In April 2011, Lee Brown took a last minute vacation to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he stayed at the world-renowned Burj Al Arab luxury hotel, part of the Jumeirah Group. According to the hotel staff, a Nepalese housekeeper entered his room unannounced and with no form of uniform or identification. In her statement to police she said she thought the room was empty and needed cleaning. The staff explained that after verbally abusing the maid, an agitated Brown attempted to throw the housekeeper from the internal balcony. Another guest at the hotel reported that Brown shouted for staff to call the police as he had 'caught her stealing'. Hotel security and staff intervened, and they subsequently called an ambulance and then later the police, noting that the Nepalese maid required minor medical attention for her injuries. CCTV footage of the incident at the Burj al Arab had been requested but none has been forthcoming to date.
According to Essam Al Humaidan, the Dubai Public Prosecutor, the group of hotel employees that intervened to prevent Brown from throwing the Nepalese maid off the balcony met "violent resistance" as they attempted to contain him. And according to Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, then the Dubai Chief of Police, Brown resisted arrest, banging his head against a wall and trying to throw himself from the hotel's balcony. Police officers also testified that Brown continued to beat on the metal mesh barrier in the patrol car while he was being driven to the police station. Despite repeated claims of Brown's 'violence' nobody received or reported any injuries or other damage. Indeed, the statement of the booking officer at Bur Dubai Police Station described Brown as 'calm and in good health'.
Brown was charged with using abusive language and intimidating behavior. Nonetheless, Brown was denied bail.
Shortly after his arrest, Brown was placed in a cell with other European prisoners, he got on well with his cellmates and four were British. He was moved to solitary confinement after returning from the prosecutor's office with injuries so severe an ambulance was called. Lieutenant General Tamim initially alleged that Brown's injuries were the result of an altercation with other inmates and in a statement to the press that he would make surveillance camera tapes of the incident available as proof that Brown's behavior warranted such action. This CCTV footage was requested on numerous occasions by both the Foreign Office in Britain and by the UK coroner but was never released. In a later statement Tamim retracted what he had previously stated and reported that Brown had caused all his injuries to himself by 'throwing himself to the ground'.
A European prisoner who shared a cell with Brown described Brown's condition as "terrible" but clarified he did not see him being beaten. The prisoner explained, "I saw him bleeding. He had bruises on his face, shoulder and arms when he asked me for help....he kept saying: ‘Please help me, please help me'." The European prisoner noted that "Brown was half naked with both his hands and legs in cuffs. He wore nothing on top … and no shoes… his pants were hanging well below the waist." The prisoner noted that Brown was not eating, and asked the police to help him. Dubai police noted that Brown had been vomiting the day before his death but added that Brown neither complained about nor sought medical help.
The Foreign Office confirmed that Brown died in custody six days after his arrest, on 12 April 2011.
The allegations that Brown was beaten by police originated from four British citizens, who were being held at the same police station on charges unrelated to those of Brown. One of the British inmates used his cellular phone to contact the sister-in-law of Brown, Su Brown, after he found her phone number as the next of kin contact in Brown's passport, which had been left in his cell.
The arrest and subsequent death of the 39-year-old Brown in 2011 caused an international uproar as many publications reported the events surrounding the incident.
Many British publications even downplayed the fact that the maid had entered his room unannounced, not in uniform and, as Lee's police statement said he found her going through his bags, in what could only be an attempt to steal, and that he was found to have no alcohol in his system. Both these facts were conveniently mis-reported in the heavily controlled UAE press. On 14 April 2011, only two days after Brown's death, and before any forensic examinations had been concluded, the British tabloid The Daily Mail, ran a headline that read, "Briton 'beaten to death' in a Dubai police cell after being arrested for swearing," which reclassified Brown's charge of "using abusive language" as simple "swearing," and altogether neglected to note the additional charges of intimidating behavior against the Nepalese maid. Likewise, the United Kingdom's newspaper of record, The Daily Telegraph, ran a headline that read, "British inquiry launched after tourist beaten to death".
The Daily Mail relied heavily on Radha Stirling, the founder of a charity that tries to support those who find themselves under arrest in Dubai, to draw a picture of conditions at Dubai police stations, while not reporting that Stirling may have a personal bias against Dubai based on personal experience with a friend's detention. Stirling claimed, "Police stations in Dubai are notoriously brutal.... Cells are usually covered in human feces and can contain up to 20 prisoners in each one. Most will be forced to sleep on the floor...They are often denied the basic rights you would expect in a police station...." However, as consulate officials from multiple countries were regular visitors to the facility in question, and have subsequently visited this facility, without ever raising concerns about the conditions of Dubai police station facilities or including any assertion that the floors are covered in feces, the article's claims have largely been discounted as unsubstantiated.
The Daily Mail subsequently ran a story on 23 April 2011 about a witness, an alleged cellmate of Lee Brown, clearly based on a story that ran two days earlier in the Gulf News about a witness who actually met with Lee Brown's family. The story dramatically altered accounts of the witness. Where the Daily Mail reported that the alleged witness stated that Brown begged him, "Please, please help me. Call my embassy, call my family . . . They beat me badly. Please help me otherwise I will die," the witness told the Gulf News that Brown only kept repeating, "Please help me, please help me." The Daily Mail article made the same treatment of the alleged witness's description of food, conditions at the police station, the guards' treatment of prisoners, and the physical condition of Lee Brown, clearly altering the statements of the witness to make the conditions of the police station appear more sinister, and to make Brown appear far more injured than later forensic exams by British officials would support, strongly indicating that the original story by Gulf News contained the accurate witness account.
Yet another British newspaper, The Independent, ran a story in 2013, noting that a consultant pathologist, Dr Benjamin Swift, privately hired by Brown's family, had concluded that the irrefutable finding that Brown was under the influence of drugs at the time of the incident was irrelevant and would not have contributed to a death by asphyxiation on his own vomit. The article asserted that the finding "lends credibility to mounting claims about brutality towards prisoners in the emirate." However, the article notably failed to mention that Dr. Swift did not rule out the possibility that Brown nonetheless sustained life-threatening injuries due to being under the influence of the drugs, and even more pointedly, that Dr. Swift explicitly ruled out violent trauma as a possible cause of death.
A preliminary post mortem report, based on an examination performed one week after Brown's death, stated "the death... was caused by suffocation as result of outflow of vomiting liquids into his respiratory track," and noted that hashish was found in Brown's system through analysis of his blood and urine. The report of the Dubai authorities noted that Brown suffered irregular bruising on the left side of the forehead, as well as bruising on the nose and on the inner arm.
An examination of Brown's body by British officials one week later found no evidence that Brown had vomit in his airways. Another post-mortem examination was carried out ahead of the British inquest into his death by consultant pathologist, Dr Benjamin Swift in 2012, at the behest of Brown's family. Dr. Swift concluded that the finding about cannabis was "not relevant" – adding that the drug had not "caused or contributed to his death". However, Dr. Swift also discounted violent trauma as a possible cause of death, describing the bruising as "light".
An official inquest was conducted at Walthamstow Coroner’s Court in East London, and this proceeding was attended by Brown’s mother, Doris Shafi, his brother, Steven, and his sister-in-law Su Brown. Unusually, no witnesses were called and no other evidence other than the post mortem reports was permitted. No CCTV footage was released by the Dubai authorities, despite references to this footage in UAE press by the Chief of Police and others.
The coroner, Chinyere Inyama, rejected the efforts of barrister John Lofthouse, to draw attention away from the evidence by citing the conflicts between the forensic findings of Emirati and British officials, reminding him that his submissions bore no relevance to the inquest’s role, which was limited to a determination of the cause of death. As such, the British coroner returned an open verdict, indicating that there was insufficient evidence to prove either an unlawful nor a natural cause of death, which effectively served to leave doubts about the circumstances of Lee Brown's death.