x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Prisoner cannot repay Dh325,000 he was convicted of stealing

A man who has served nine years in jail on a five-year sentence for embezzlement is still stuck in jail because he cannot pay Dh325,000, half the money he and another man have been convicted of stealing.

DUBAI // A prisoner being kept in jail until he repays the money he was convicted of stealing fears he will spend the rest of his life behind bars because his case has been forgotten.

Koonimookel Abdullah, 61, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2002 for his part in a Dh650,000 blood-money embezzlement scam set up by a corrupt court official. He has been in prison for nine years and three months.

At his most recent court hearing last month, prosecutors told him he would have to stay there until he repaid Dh325,000, which he cannot do.

To compound Abdullah's misery, he says he did not benefit from the scam and was duped by the court official, who lived in the apartment block where Abdullah was a watchman.

"I have lost all hope, now I feel I will not be released," Abdullah says. "I will never be free, I will just remain here in jail."

"Abdullah is shattered," said an aid official who regularly visits prisoners. "He thought he would be shown some leniency for serving more time, but it's back to square one — funds are needed to get him out."

A former baker from Kerala, Abdullah worked as a watchman in Sharjah for 15 years, and earned a monthly salary of Dh500.

His problems began during Ramadan in 2002, when he accepted a total of Dh1,500 in three instalments as zakat, or alms, from MS, a Palestinian court official responsible for administering diyya, or blood money.

Using the Dh1,500 as bait, MS persuaded Abdullah that wealthy Emiratis would give him money during the holy month if he signed some papers as a receipt.

The corrupt official used the papers to open a bank account in Abdullah's name, into which he transferred unclaimed diyya of Dh650,000 from the court, then withdrew the cash and left the country. He was arrested at the airport when he returned to Dubai, and convicted and jailed along with Abdullah.

"He asked for my passport copy and told me to sign some papers, but I didn't know he was giving me hukumat [government] money," Abdullah said.

"I have not stolen any money. I have never entered any bank. I kept telling the police 'I don't know, I don't know about the money'. No one is listening."

His hopes were raised last year when a mercy petition was filed by the Indian Community Welfare Committee (ICWC), and resubmitted this year.

"When I was called back to court in March I was very happy. I thought the judge would release me," Abdullah said.

"People tell me to be patient, but I am in too much tension."

Aid workers describe Abdullah's case as unusual.

"This is a rare case," said K Kumar, the ICWC head. "He has served one of the longest jail terms I know of in a financial crime case because it is over and above his original sentence."

Abdullah's hopes may rest on a judgment in May last year by the Dubai Criminal Court of First Instance. The court ruled that prisoners convicted of financial crimes and unable to pay fines and penalties may be kept in jail for a maximum of six months beyond the completion of their sentences.

However, aid workers for Abdullah said they did not know the details of the judgment, and said it had not been used so far in Abdullah's defence. They also said they did not know if the ruling applied to all financial crimes, including Abdullah's. He is not represented by a lawyer.

"We are still trying to work out a solution so the concerned authorities are convinced he did not benefit directly from the money," said Mr Kumar.

"We are also trying to raise funds to free him, but it is a very large amount."

Abdullah depends on sympathetic prison inmates and aid workers who lend him money for phone calls to his family in India, and an occasional treat of coffee and biscuits. But his family has also picked up his rising anxiety.

"Every month he gets sadder," his wife, Kamarunisa Abdullah, said from her home in a village near Calicut in Kerala.

The ICWC arranged for her to visit Dubai in October last year when the mercy petition was filed. She remembers weeping with him over family pictures she brought along.

"He has never seen his grandchildren," Mrs Abdullah said. "When will this end?"

rtalwar@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Awad Mustafa