x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Up to 100 businessmen at Dubai's largest jail are refusing to eat in protest against their imprisonment for writing bounced cheques.

DUBAI // Businessmen jailed for writing cheques that bounced have begun a protest against their continued imprisonment.

Twelve inmates at Dubai Central Prison began a hunger strike on Sunday and many more have joined since. They have debts ranging from thousands to millions of dirhams.

"The hunger strike is my final option," said one Indian expatriate, 50, who is 13 months into a 10-year sentence and began a fourth day without food yesterday.

He was the owner of a rail engineering company and became a victim of the financial crisis in 2008.

People on whom he relied stopped paying him money, so he in turn was unable to pay his creditors or employees, and more than 50 complaints were lodged against him.

"I didn't have the money and I was put in jail," he said. Meanwhile his debts continue to mount.

"I do not have the option to raise money and pay off the debt while in a public lock-up," he said. "There is no point. Let us go out and let us work to pay off our debts."

By Tuesday, 30 more prisoners from the United States, Britain, India, Iran. Jordan, Ireland, Pakistan and Lebanon had joined the protest, he said. They have written to public prosecutors asking to be released.

The man described prison as a "terrible place" to be. "You are a businessman then you are put in a prison system with criminals, rapists, murderers and drug addicts."

He believes the purpose of imprisonment is to prevent people fleeing the country with unpaid debts left behind. There are better ways of doing this, he said, such as confiscating passports or electronic tagging.

"The current way is meaningless. It also damages the reputation of the UAE as a business-friendly country."

Public prosecutors visited the prison yesterday to talk to those on hunger strike, the man said, but he vowed to not to break his strike until he is freed.

"I am prepared to take this all the way," he said. "I feel terrible but I have to hold on."

His wife called him a "victim of circumstance". "We are living in hell," she said.

Another Indian expatriate who began refusing food on Sunday said: "I feel pretty bad."

The businessman, 48 and a father of two, is three years into a 25-year sentence for writing bounced cheques. At the height of his success he was one of the top commodity traders in the country.

He wants authorities to release him and others in a similar plight to allow them to work off their debts.

Another prisoner, a father of four from Jordan who joined the protest on Tuesday, said there was no one to support his family.

"We will not stop until we are released," said the businessman, 48, who is five months into a 19-month sentence.

A similar hunger strike in Dubai last year ended in the release of two prisoners after authorities reviewed their cases.

A presidential decree for Eid Al Ahda last year gave Emiratis immunity from prosecution for bounced security cheques and anyone serving time for such offences has since been released.

Since the end of last year Emiratis and expatriates who defaulted on a loan because of a bounced cheque have no longer faced prison and, again, many have been released.

There are growing calls for that move to be extended. The Emirates Banks Association has lobbied the Government and Central Bank and offered recommendations for how they could replace the laws that criminalise bounced cheques.

However, the laws remain in place.