x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Open a window on prison population

An Indian initiative to collect data on UAE prisoners is a model that should be followed. The prison system needs to offer statistics on prisoners, sentences and prison terms available to the public.

For an unpaid rental car bill and defaulting on his credit card payments, Mustak Mahboob ended up in a Dubai jail just as he was about to get married. A year later, the 31-year-old Indian sales superviser remains in prison pending charges for absconding from his employer.

Mr Mahboob's case is clearly one where more transparency would benefit both the penal system and the prisoner.

As The National reports today, India's ambassador to the UAE, MK Lokesh, is planning a campaign that will collect details of Indian prisoners serving time in UAE jails in an effort to determine who is eligible for a prison transfer home. A swap agreement was signed between the two countries in November and could take another three months to be ratified.

To be sure, many prisoners are serving sentences for serious crimes. At the same time, many detainees are in jail for debt. Others may even have served their sentences but remain incarcerated for bureaucratic reasons or pending blood money payments. Greater transparency is needed. Better statistics on the prison population would ease the burden on the legal system, reduce the volume of pending cases and expedite the release of prisoners if debts or blood money can be paid.

The move by the Indian authorities is a laudable one and a step towards ensuring that the well-being of their citizens are safeguarded.

It is also an example that the prison authorities could follow. In a population that includes Emiratis and expatriates, comprehensive, publicly available data on prisoners, their convictions and sentences would serve families, consulates and the prison system itself. Convicts can serve their time without having to be kept in anonymity. And employers can have better data on whom they are hiring.

A new comprehensive database of prisoners across the country, and the crimes they are serving time for, is an important project. The lack of data is not surprising in a prison system that is modernising, but it should be rectified. Publicly available records could also facilitate other exchange agreements such as the one with India.

Such an undertaking would not be easy, but it would be worthwhile. The legal framework in the country would benefit from the transparency as would future investigations. But above all, it would help to ensure justice for every prisoner regardless of nationality.