Fasting for justice in Dubai

Belgian prisoner on weeks-long hunger strike in “critical condition”, as expatriates protest against bounced-cheque law.

Prisoners' families have appealed to the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, for help [EPA]

A Belgian man jailed in Dubai for writing cheques which bounced is in a critical condition as a result of a weeks-long hunger strike, according to a member of his family.

Olivier Loeb, a 51-year-old businessman, is one of at least 17 foreigners currently refusing food in protest at their imprisonment and to draw attention to the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) bounced-cheque laws.

The other hunger strikers, who are made up of British, Irish, Lebanese, Bahraini, and Saudi nationals, are serving sentences up to 46 years.

“It is now up to the authorities if they want the responsibility of having a dead body in jail over a bounced cheque”

– Olivier Loeb, Belgian hunger striker

Writing cheques which subsequently bounce is a criminal offence in the UAE, but those prisoners who spoke to Al Jazeera said they were victims of an arbitrary misinterpretation of the law.

“The doctors insisted on feeding him the IV drip, saying if he didn’t take it he would be gone within the next two days,” a relative told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.Loeb, who has served four months of a three-year sentence, has not eaten since April 18, and has refused liquids since May 8. He was transferred to a hospital for a few hours on Friday, where he was forced to take an intravenous (IV) drip.

Loeb was jailed after cheques he had written bounced following the failure of an investor to pay up on a business deal.

Speaking on the phone from prison, Loeb told Al Jazeera he was feeling weak, but was determined to continue with his hunger strike, and has since refused fluids following the removal of the IV drip.

“Every hour which passes it becomes tougher,” he said.

“I’ve been condemned unjustly by an archaic law, and the courts just keep postponing my case for no reason,” he said. “It is now up to the authorities if they want the responsibility of having a dead body in jail over a bounced cheque.”

Hunger strike ‘denied’

The UAE’s penal code states it is against the law to write a cheque in “bad faith”, or with malicious intent, if the drawer knows they do not have the balance to cover the cheque on its due date.

But Tarek al Kays, a 51-year-old Lebanese national who has spent two years in prison, said: “The public prosecutor has to prove that the issuer of the cheque really had malicious intent and intended to defraud the beneficiary, but in practice they don’t.

“The courts presume, and that presumption is unconstitutional.”

According to local media reports, the Dubai prison authorities have denied a hunger strike is taking place.

When contacted by Al Jazeera, the Ministry of Justice refused to comment on the matter.

Kays, who is also on hunger strike, said that equipment such as scales, blood pressure pumps and other instruments had been removed from the prison clinic to prevent the prisoners from monitoring their health.

“[The prison authorities] denial of the hunger strike is amazing,” he told Al Jazeera.

Seven-year sentence

Many business transactions in the UAE are based on security cheques, which are issued when buying a car, taking out mortgages, renting apartments, and buying property as a guarantee against the person issuing them.

Once the amount is paid, the cheques are meant to be handed back to the issuer, but in some cases the benefactor attempts to cash them in in order to gain more money.


Safi Qurashi was sentenced to seven years in jail

In other cases, investors negate on a deal but the cheques are still cashed, forcing the issuer to deal with the authorities.

According to UAE law, the drawer of the cheque is held accountable as their signature is on it.

In 2009 The National, a UAE-based daily newspaper, reported a committee had been set up to look into the issues raised regarding bounced cheques. The minister of justice told the newspaper the government would review the matter.

No comments have been made by the minister since.

“The courts don’t look beyond the signature,” said Safi Qurashi, a British national who has served three years of a seven-year sentence imposed as a result of bounced cheques he says were wrongly cashed on completion of a property deal.

“I was asked ‘is this your signature, yes or no?’ and that was it. I asked for witnesses and experts, all within my constitutional rights, but they were all denied,” he said.

No liability

In October 2011, a court-appointed auditor reviewed Qurashi’s case, and found that he had no liability, and did not owe any money as a result.

However, each of his appeals have been rejected.

“No matter who has done what, jailing people without mitigating circumstances is not right,” said Qurashi.

“They’re playing with our lives, with our children’s lives.”

Qurashi’s 13-year-old daughter Sara also appealed for her father to be released and said in a YouTube video that she was prepared to join him on hunger strike.

“I want my dad to come home, and I would really appreciate it if Sheikh Mohammad [bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler] amended the law with the bounced cheque, and helped the innocent people, because it’s not fair on them and their families,” she told Al Jazeera.

A spokesperson for the British embassy in Dubai told Al Jazeera they are aware of the hunger strike, and consulate officials are visiting the prison on a regular basis.

“We are offering information about the health implications of a hunger strike,” she said, adding that they could not comment regarding the cases of the British nationals.

‘Die in this place’

Mazhar Akhtar, a 42-year-old British national sentenced to 36 years based on a number of misdemeanour charges served consecutively, rather than concurrently, said he had not seen his three children since he entered prison seven years ago and expected to “literally die in this place”.

Some prisoners allege that expatriates are treated differently to locals, with local media recently reporting that an Emirati man was ordered to pay a fine of 30,000 Dirhams ($8,168) for a series of bounced cheques he had signed amounting to a total of 122.5m Dirhams ($33.3m).

“I’m not asking for sympathy on my guilt, rather I’m asking why is the law implemented so arbitrarily?” said Akhtar.

“Why does one nationality get to pay a fine for the same crime, and I have to go to jail?”

Chris Renehan, a 38-year-old Irishman who had been working in the UAE for eight years, said cheques he had written had bounced when a government-owned entity failed to pay him for work he had completed, thus preventing him from paying off his debt. 

He was sentenced to six years in prison, and has served eight months so far.

“They say I have to pay the money back, but how am I meant to do that when I’m stuck inside?” he said. “I’m not trying to run away from my debt.”

As a result, Renehan says, his employees are stranded in Dubai while he stays in jail, neither side being able to move forward until the money owed to him is paid.

Article 401 of the UAE Penal Code

  • Refers to bouncing cheques, where it states anyone who writes a cheque, in bad faith, whereby the amount cannot be drawn from the account, is liable for punishment through a jail sentence or a fine.
  • Bounced cheque cases are tried in criminal courts, because it is considered a crime to bounce a cheque, and may also be tried in a civil court by the individual who is owed money.
  • While punishment can be either a jail sentence or a fine, general practice is to issue a jail sentence.
  • While the maximum sentence is three years for a cheque fraud case, general practice is to add the sentences for different cases to each other, thus increasing the amount of time spent in jail.
  • Once convicted, prisoners will only be released once they have paid off their debt, or have received a waiver from the claimant.
Bankruptcy in the UAE

  • Individuals cannot declare bankruptcy, as the provisions within the law do not exist.
  • Companies can declare bankruptcy, which will automatically lead to an investigation into the company’s management practices. If the investigation discovers the company has been mismanaged (which tends to be the case with bankruptcy), the manager of the company will be sent to prison, and the bankruptcy claim is denied.
Source: Al Jazeera