x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Don't police petty crime with prison

It doesn't make sense that people accused of truly minor offences should spend months in jail awaiting trial.

When three men were charged with taking photos of the Qatari Embassy in Abu Dhabi, an illegal act, it might have been tempting to pity their predicament. After all, one of the men told the judges he accidentally included the embassy in a photo of the nearby Capital Gate, the world's furthest-leaning man-made tower.

But in at least one way they were lucky. Compared with similar stories involving misdemeanour offenders, like those accused of inappropriate gestures, for instance, these three men were free on bail before their hearing. Many more suspects of lesser crimes are simply locked up before trial, robbed of their livelihood or any means to pay their legal bills.

In 2010 a Lebanese man was arrested for taking a photo of the Capital Gate because he accidentally included the US Embassy in his frame. He was later acquitted, but not before serving three months in jail.

Then last March, four men spent two months behind bars following a fight in Abu Dhabi. They were released only after their accuser was found to have submitted an outdated medical report to buttress his claims.

In cases involving legitimate threats to state security, or felony crimes like murder, detention is prudent policy; the risk of flight is simply too high. But in cases involving petty crimes or less nefarious infractions, the common practice the world over is to release a person and order them to appear in court at a future date. For a migratory population like the UAE, prosecutors could simply seize a suspect's passport rather than shipping him off to prison. But as past examples have proven, this is not always the preferred course of action.

The danger of locking up suspects for minor crimes before their day in court is that it creates a sense of uncertainty among those wishing to solve disputes legally. Before a dispute arrives at a judge's chamber, it winds its way through the police and prosecution. In the meantime, suspects can linger in jail, even if they are innocent.

Pretrial detention must be the exception not the rule. That can be achieved by providing more training to police on procedures, and by borrowing from legislation in other places with high volumes of tourism. The need for such training has been raised by judges themselves. The system should catch up with their recommendations.