x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Police look at database for DNA of all residents

Experts from five emirates are meeting under a government mandate to discuss gathering genetic material and how it would be used.

Police and forensics experts from across the country will meet in Sharjah today to consider setting up a nationwide DNA database that could include every resident of the UAE. At present, DNA samples are taken only from convicted criminals or suspects.

"What we would like is to start thinking about taking samples from all of the UAE population, local and expatriate," said Dr Ahmed Marzooqi, the chairman of the Emirates DNA Working Group, who acknowledged that the project could take a decade. The group was launched in October 2008 under the direction of Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, the Minister of Interior, and brought together the leading forensics experts from every emirate's police force to discuss the project.

"At present we take [DNA] samples from suspected, incarcerated and convicted criminals," Dr Marzooqi said. He is also the head of the forensic biology unit at Abu Dhabi Forensics Science Department (FSD) and is Interpol's only Middle Eastern representative on the 12-person DNA Monitoring Expert group. As of the beginning of the year, 4,000 samples had been collected since 2002 in the DNA bank of criminal suspects.

Similar databases of criminals' DNA are in use around the world, but the scheme under discussion today would encompass the identities of every Emirati and foreign resident. Setting up "legislative and legal parameters that protect people's privacy" will be a key part of the effort, Dr Marzooqi said. Unlike the Emirates Identity Authority programme, in which fingerprints and facial biometrics are collected, he hopes to build a database in which a DNA profile of UAE residents could be used for criminal cases.

The profiles could also be used during natural disasters. In cases where a person has gone missing, a method known as kinship DNA testing allows authorities to take a sample from the person's relatives, who share similar genes. The relative's DNA is then cross-examined with that of any recovered remains, allowing authorities to confirm the identity. "This effort will help us as a team immensely in cases of natural and man-made disasters," Dr Marzooqi said.

The programme could take up to a decade to materialise, however. "If we get the green light on this programme, we are going to be the first country in the world where we have DNA profiles," he said. Several reports have been submitted by the working group to the Ministry of Interior. If the ministry is in favour of the DNA database, the plan will require the regular legislative stamp through the Federal National Council, and the President's signature.

"This could take at least two years to get this programme in its initial phase. We have to start thinking about the building, the equipment, the robotic systems and the staff. But I am very hopeful that this will happen because the outcome is significant," Dr Marzooqi said. If this project receives no objection, "it could still take a decade to be fully comprehensive, and we have to take into account the growing population, which could be as much as 10 million in 10 years," Dr Marzooqi said.

Despite the effort, time and potential public criticism, he is certain the programme will be worthwhile. "This will control crime drastically. It will reduce the number of unnecessary and innocent suspects and reveal the criminal much faster with scientific proof," Dr Marzooqi said. The eight-member working group is made up of three experts from Abu Dhabi, two from Dubai one each from Sharjah, Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah. According to Dr Marzooqi, Ajman and Umm al Qaiwain have yet to select experts to join the group.


myoussef@thenational.ae