x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Man still in jail 'because he can't afford fine'

Family prays man who has been in prison for 10 years - twice as long as his five-year sentence for embezzlement - will be released.

DUBAI // The family of an Indian man who has served 10 years in prison - twice the length of his sentence and one of the longest terms on record for a financial crime - is praying he will be pardoned today.

A decade after Koonimookel Abdullah, 61, was sentenced to five years, a decision from the Public Prosecution on a mercy petition filed on his behalf is likely to be delivered today, relatives and aid workers said, adding all other avenues have been exhausted.

Mr Abdullah was kept in jail after completing his sentence in 2007 as he could not pay back Dh325,000, half the amount of the blood-money embezzlement for which he was convicted in May 2002.

"We are in tears. We cry and we are tense. We are praying for mercy," said Roshna, Mr Abdullah's daughter who lives near Calicut in Kerala.

"Everyone consoles us and says he will be free … he will come this month, then next month. My mother is always tense. If he is not freed now, then what hope do we have?"

Kamarunisa, Abdullah's wife, visited Dubai in 2010 to file a mercy petition for his release based on the "excess number of years" he has served in Dubai Central Jail.

The Indian Community Welfare Committee (ICWC) arranged for her visit and resubmitted a mercy petition last year.

Mr Abdullah has maintained he was duped by a court official, MS, who lived in the same Sharjah apartment block where he worked.

A former baker from Kerala, Mr Abdullah had found a job as a watchman in Sharjah, where he worked for 15 years.

His troubles began during Ramadan in 2002, when he accepted a total of Dh1,500 in three instalments as zakat - or alms - from the official, who was responsible for administering diyya, or blood money, in the courts.

MS convinced Mr Abdullah that rich Emiratis were giving money to poor people during the holy month, and asked him to sign some papers as a receipt for the funds.

The official then used the papers to open a bank account in Mr Abdullah's name and transferred Dh650,000 in unclaimed diyya money from the court.

The official later withdrew the cash and left the country. But on his return to Dubai, he was convicted and jailed along with Mr Abdullah.

Mr Abdullah's family insists he was deceived because he cannot read or write, and had never even set foot in the bank where the account was opened. Indian aid workers say the case typifies the situation of illiterate workers.

"We have knocked on every door and now we are hopeful of a positive outcome considering the nature of his case," said K Kumar, the head of the ICWC.

"It's a very sad case. We are hopeful of a pardon. But the moral of the story is that workers have to be very careful and warned against signing papers. They can easily be duped."

After the mercy petition was resubmitted, Mr Abdullah has been called to court hearings and asked to repay the Dh325,000, which he has said he could not afford. His monthly salary was Dh500.

Lawyers said pardons were usually issued by the rulers of the different emirates during Eid, Ramadan and National Day.

"It has also happened that after a complainant files a mercy petition, the sum he cannot pay is written off by the court," said a lawyer who was aware of Mr Abdullah's case but did not wish to be identified.

The case may depend on a 2010 judgment by the Dubai Court of First Instance, where a Syrian prisoner was ordered to be released after spending four more years behind bars than his three-year sentence for embezzling public funds.

The court ruled prisoners who are convicted of financial crimes, but who are unable to pay the fines and penalties, may be kept in jail for a maximum of six months beyond the completion of their sentences.

Lawyers are not certain the ruling applied to all financial crimes but the ICWC has cited it in its petition.

An aid worker who has visited Mr Abdullah in prison said he was anxious about today's hearing.

"We told him to hold on to the dream of being released," the worker said. "He has a lot of hope and has been waiting for this day."

Mr Abdullah's daughter Roshna said the family had been relying on friends for money ever since losing their sole breadwinner.

"People try and help, but how much can they keep giving?" she asked. "We are waiting in tears that he will get mercy."

rtalwar@thenational.ae