x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

'Unequal' laws stir anger behind bars

Police say many things are prohibited from entry into detention centres, but inmates and others say they make their way in anyway.

DUBAI // Discrepancies in enforcement of prison rules are to blame for a recent spate of unrest at jails around the emirate, lawyers and inmates say.

Police say regulations outlawing takeaway food, cigarettes and mobile phones in prisons are uniform, and any protests are simply a "pressure tool" detainees use in a bid to get what they want.

Others, however, say the rules are frequently flouted, sparking anger among some prisoners who feel they are treated more harshly than others.

Last month, 20 detainees in the Bur Dubai police station started rioting, demanding cigarettes and delivery food. Riot police were called to restore order.

In a separate incident, 10 people at the Ports detention centre went on a hunger strike for a day, demanding they be allowed to receive takeaway food, which they said had been allowed the day before but was now banned. That protest ended peacefully.

Police say inmates are fed regular meals and are forbidden to order meals from outside, yet prisoners and lawyers say these rules are not consistently enforced.

Yousef Al Bahar, of the Dubai law firm Al Bahar & Associates, said the problem did not lie in the rules and regulations or the strategy of the police, but in discrepancies between how rules were enforced.

"The problem is that each police station has its own procedures at the detention centre, and this is creating grievances among detainees, and in some instances, also disorder," said Mr Al Bahar.

"The confusion should stop, as well as the discrepancies. Police should ... ensure the same rules are applied everywhere."

Mr Al Bahar is handling the case of a group of detainees who are accused of setting fire to the detention centre at Al Rifa'a.

"The detainees demanded to have cigarettes after they heard that the inmates in Al Murqabat police station were allowed them," he said.

Maj Gen Khamis Al Mazeina, the deputy head of Dubai Police, said such things did not happen: all detention centres follow the same rules.

"Prisoners try to put pressure on the guards in different ways, including creating trouble to get their illegitimate demands, such as making phone calls at non-authorised timings or asking for food delivery. Riots and fires are the last pressure tool that prisoners use to get their demands when everything else fails."

Col Mohammad Nasser, the deputy director of Dubai Police's CID for police stations, said there were clear rules governing the police stations, and the rights of detainees were fully respected.

Yousef Hammad, of Hammad and Associates Advocates and Legal Consultancy, said he had witnessed no parallel sets of regulations.

"All the detentions follow the same regulations, with no exceptions," he said. "The riots are mainly reactions to collective disciplinary actions taken by the detention management due to violations carried out in the cells."

But Ali Dahi, of Pan Globe advocates and legal consultancy, said his experience had been quite the contrary.

"The different procedures at the detention centres are causing grievances among the detainees and are one of the main reasons behind fires and riots," he said. "Some detainees, with heavy criminal records, tend to think that they are unjustly treated when they hear about more relaxed rules at other detention centres, so acts such as riots become common as they are used to take on violence to resolve issues," he said.

In detention centres such as Al Rifa'a, Jebel Ali and Hatta, procedures are more flexible — inmates might, for example, be allowed to have a cigarette once a day. Centres such as Bur Dubai, Al Rashidya and Al Qusais, however, often see rules more strictly enforced, according to Mr Dahi.

"There is a logical reason for the difference," Mr Dahi said. "The majority of the detainees in places like Rifa'a are people who have been involved in bounced cheques cases or other trade-related cases due to the nature of the area covered, and thus they are usually peaceful people who follow prison guards' orders. Not much effort is needed to control them.

"In places covering residential areas, such as Bur Dubai and Al Rashidiya, there are many detainees arrested in connection with drugs, assaults and murder cases, so they are rebellious and stricter measures need to put in place to control them."

But even at the Bur Dubai detention centre in recent months, inmates traded and sold cigarettes, sweets, soft drinks and food with each other in "supermarkets" run by the longest-serving inmates, The National has observed. Some sold time on mobile phones. Once a week, guards allow inmates to order in food from a fast-food chicken restaurant.

Mohammed, 30, a detainee at the Ports police station, said conditions there changed drastically about two weeks ago. He said at that point, many things allowed were suddenly off-limits.

"We are not allowed to buy food any longer or even snack, and we are only provided small amounts of food," he said.

Among the items no longer permitted are newspapers, he said, although under police regulations they should be provided to detainees.

"We hear that things are different in other police stations," he said.


* With additional reporting by Awad Mustafa