x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ramadan freedom for UAE debt prisoners

Ramadan: The Faraj Fund settles the debts of inmates who have been jailed because of financial problems or have finished their sentences but cannot afford to pay fines or buy travel tickets home.

ABU DHABI //A record number of prisoners are expected to be released during Ramadan through a special fund that pays off their debts.

The Faraj Fund, or Relief Fund, settles the obligations of people who have been jailed because of financial problems or have finished their sentences but cannot afford to pay fines or buy travel tickets home. The fund also offers assistance to their families.

Established in 2009 with the support of the Ministry of Interior, the fund operates with charitable donations from individuals and institutions. Last year it helped to release and assist the families of more than 140 prisoners.

"We are launching an intensive media campaign during Ramadan to collect donations. We expect to have the highest numbers of inmates released this Ramadan," Col Abdul Hakim Al Suwaidi, a member of the fund's board, said yesterday.

Before providing support, a committee established by the fund studies the case of each inmate, who have to meet certain criteria to receive assistance.

"While there are certain conditions, we help as many people as possible and their families," Col Al Suwaidi said. "We pay the rent of their families if they cannot afford it because their partner is in prison.

"For prisoners who have been arrested because of cheques, we usually try to reach an agreement with the creditor for a payment plan."

There are 72 prisoners about to receive assistance for their release and Col Al Suwaidi expects that number to increase by the end of Ramadan.

Amal Al Dhaheri, a social worker at Al Wathba Central Prison, gave the example of a Sudanese couple who divorced after the husband was jailed for not repaying loans. They were reunited and flown home thanks to the fund.

"We had an elderly Sudanese man who spent two years in jail because he had taken a loan to provide for his four daughters. After he was sent to prison, his wife divorced him and he had to pay alimony," Ms Al Dhaheri said.

"His wife still cared for him and, after negotiations, agreed to reduce her alimony from Dh115,000 to Dh50,000."

The Faraj Fund generally pays off loans up to Dh100,000, unless it receives large donations from a charity or organisation.

"The Sudanese wife reduced her alimony and convinced the bank to reduce her ex-husband's debt, from Dh75,000 to Dh25,000."

The couple reunited after his release and went back to Sudan.

"The man had not seen his daughters in two years because he refused to let them see him in such a state. Before his release he was in a terrible emotional state and needed rehabilitation."

Ms Al Dhaheri said the cases of all prisoners in Al Wathba are reviewed and files sent to various organisations for assistance.

"While we get a lot of help from the Zakat Fund and the Red Crescent Authority, the Faraj Fund deals with the cases where a large sum of money is needed for the prisoners' release."

In another case, a Syrian man was imprisoned for defaulting on a loan from his employer.

"The man worked for a car decorating shop and needed Dh9,000 because his daughter was undergoing a major operation. He borrowed the money from his employer but couldn't pay it back because he only made Dh2,500, which he also had to send back to Syria. The employer complained about him and he was brought to us," Ms Al Dhaheri said.

The fund paid off his debt and gave him a one-off sum of Dh5,000.

In 2011, Al Wathba prison released nine prisoners through the Faraj Fund, which paid a total of Dh88,138 for their release. In 2012, 18 prisoners at the jail were released at a cost of Dh1.25 million, and, from January up until June this year, 10 inmates were released at a cost of Dh228,720.

salnuwais@thenational.ae