x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Prisoner swap deal brings shame for some

Indian women convicted of prostitution in the Emirates say they do not want to serve their remaining time in their homeland because it will bring shame on their families.

DUBAI //A prisoner swap agreement between the UAE and India signed yesterday has unintended consequences for some of the 40 Indian women in UAE jails. They fear returning to India will reveal to family and friends they were convicted of prostitution.

The women say they would rather serve out their sentence in the Emirates because they fear knowledge of their crime will bring dishonour to their families.

The Transfer of Sentenced Persons agreement, signed by the Interior Minister, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, and the Indian home minister, P Chidambaram, will pave the way for convicted prisoners from both countries to complete their sentences in their homelands. The treaty only applies to prisoners who have been convicted, not those who are still on trial.

There were "hardly any" UAE nationals in Indian jails, Wam, the state news agency, said. However, there are 1,200 Indian prisoners in UAE jails, including 40 women.

The women have been convicted of crimes ranging from prostitution to human trafficking to murder, as well as robbery.

Many of the prostitutes have told their loved ones they are serving time for less serious crimes, such as causing traffic accidents. They fear the truth would be revealed if they returned home.

"No one knows the truth and I'm always scared it will come out," said a mother of four who was convicted of prostitution, and is serving the fourth year of a five-year sentence at Al Aweer Prison.

"I told my family I'm in jail because of an accident case. My life is spoilt, I don't want that for my children. My daughters have to get married. If this comes out, then who will marry them?"

Like many other women, she was the family breadwinner, and came here on a housemaid visa. Duped by traffickers with the promise of a good job, she said she was forced into prostitution upon her arrival. She was escorted daily by men from an apartment to a studio where other women were also kept under lock and key.

"I would be beaten and sworn at if I did not agree," she said. "Our passports were taken away and they told us to pay 300,000 rupees (Dh23,706) if we wanted to be free. Where could I get that money? I paid 70,000 rupees to come here. I came here to earn for my family, now I have nothing."

Like her cellmates, the mother of four is worried about life when she leaves the prison. Once the money at home dried up, her children stopped attending school. They now depend on money she saves from working in the prison workshop, along with donations from aid workers.

"They keep asking when I will come home. I say I will come soon," she said. "But I will never go back. There will be too many questions. I will take them [her family] and move to another city."

Aid workers say better conditions in UAE jails - contrasted with overcrowded Indian prisons - will prompt many to decide on remaining in the Emirates.

"Most girls don't want to go back home to serve time, they feel their life is better here," said P Nadkarni, a volunteer who visits the prison. "They are worried about the outside world. How can they explain to people what happened to the past five to 10 years?"

Regular meetings with prisoners, and guidance on resettling in India, is imperative, she said.

"You cannot be judgmental. The real challenge is making them believe that they can choose a better path, find them a job."

Working in the prison workshop, including crocheting shawls and hairbands, and making beadwork key chains, helps inmates take their minds off life behind bars, the women said.

"I think of my child, about seeing her when I get free," said another woman prisoner who was convicted of prostitution, and was serving the third year of a five-year sentence.

"Five years is a long time, and I don't know what will happen to my daughter. But I can't show my face at home."

The thought of life outside the prison scares the women, they said, adding to the anxiety over winning back the trust of their children who have grown up in their absence.

"We are worrying about this prisoner treaty since we heard about it a year ago," said the same woman, who took a loan on her home to pay an Indian agent for a visa and plane ticket.

Now, the bank has possession of her home, and relatives care for her daughter.

"What will I tell her if she knows other prisoners are asking to serve their time in India. Then what do I say?"

rtalwar@thenational.ae

Additional reporting: Preeti Kannan