Dubai prisoners on hunger strike over debt sentences

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 07, 2012 1:16 PM
Dubai prisoners on hunger strike over debt sentences

DUBAI (Reuters) - Five expatriates jailed in Dubai said they were among a group of prisoners who have gone on hunger strike to protest against lengthy prison sentences handed down to most of them for financial crimes.

The men, most of them real estate developers and businessmen working in Dubai during its economic boom years, fell into debt when the emirate's property bubble burst after the 2008 global credit crisis.

Zack Shahin, a U.S. citizen accused of embezzlement while at the helm of Deyaar, was arrested in 2008 after a corruption investigation and is one of those who have gone on hunger strike in the emirate's jail. There have been hearings of his case but no judgment.

"I no longer wish to engage in this game. I'm now in prison for four-and-a-half years without a judgment. This is inhuman," he said, speaking from jail. "I've told my daughter that I'm coming home, even if it's in a box."

Other hunger strikers have told Reuters over the past few days that around 16 men are part of the protest against sentences handed down for bouncing cheques, a criminal offence in the UAE punishable by fines or jail terms.

Police and the public prosecution service in Dubai did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

"I would rather go on hunger strike than stay here for 23 years," said Peter Margetts, a British property developer, speaking by telephone from prison.

Margetts, 48, who says he has been on hunger strike since April 22, was convicted after cheques securing a 20-million dirham ($5.45 million) loan bounced.

A British embassy spokeswoman said the embassy was aware of the hunger strike and was monitoring the situation.

The strikers jailed for bouncing cheques want their cases reviewed, sentences reconsidered and to be released. Lebanese prisoner Tarek Saleh, reading a statement from the protesters, said 16 men had stopped taking solid food for more than 20 days and would stop taking all fluids and medication unless they won a review of their cases.

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Post-dated cheques are frequently used as a guarantee by businesses, banks and individuals in the UAE for everything from apartment rentals to multi-billion dollar deals.

Lawyers say the cases highlight the need for financial and legal reforms in a country that has no bankruptcy law to protect debtors. Many call for the decriminalization of bounced cheques.

"The government should not be responsible for being a debt collector," said Habib al-Mulla, a prominent UAE lawyer. "But the problem is that this system is rooted in society. To change this you have to find an alternative. Until today there is no other alternative." ($1 = 3.6730 UAE dirhams)

(Reporting by Rania El Gamal and Praveen Menon; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Tim Pearce)