[Assam] [assam] High-fliers turn hunger-strikers after Dubai desert dream ends in jail
bbaruah at aol.com
Sat May 19 18:41:29 IST 2012
The Independent UK (May 19, 2012)
Archipelago And Islands
Cheque (means Of Payment)
Hunger striking is a tactic more often associated with prisoners of
conscience and political detainees, but a group of expatriates serving
prison sentences in Dubai have a background in high finance.
Safi Qurashi, once a millionaire British property magnate, is one of
around 20 expats who have gone nearly a month without food in Al Awir
Prison in the hope that their protest will bring about a change in laws
that criminalise the bouncing of a cheque.
With a sentence of up to three years being handed down for every cheque
that bounces, and sentences running consecutively, some are facing
decades behind bars.
Qurashi, 43, from London, was among the droves of Western businessmen
who flocked to the oil-rich United Arab Emirates to cash in on soaring
property prices. Best known for the £43m he invested in buying the
Great Britain island on the unfinished World development – an
archipelago of artificial islands – Qurashi became entangled in the
archaic financial laws when boom turned to bust in late 2008, and is
three years into a seven-year sentence for two bounced cheques.
"I have made a vow that the next meal I have will be with my children,"
he says over the prison phone. "If that doesn't happen then so be it.
The hunger strike is either going to take my life or get me out of
here." Post-dated security cheques are used to underwrite the majority
of financial transactions in Dubai, from mortgages and car loans to
property deals. The practice dates back to before the United Arab
Emirates was formed in 1971.
But despite lawyers' and officials' recognition of the need for an
update to bankruptcy and financial crime laws, changes are yet to be
implemented. An Irish expatriate, Christopher Renehan, was the first to
begin the hunger strike on 18 April amid frustration that he was unable
to settle his financial situation from behind bars. He says late
payments from a client caused cheques that he had written to
contractors to bounce.
"Not everybody is innocent – I'm no angel myself – but there are a lot
of honest businessmen in here who want to pay people but can't," says
Renehan, who is serving six years.
Each bounced cheque holds a sentence of up to three years and although
the law stipulates they should be issued in "bad faith" for a criminal
case, lawyers say this is not how the legislation is interpreted.
Nasser Hashem, partner at a Dubai law firm which takes on around 15 new
bounced-cheque cases every month, says the circumstances are not taken
into account. "The bouncing of the cheque is considered a crime
regardless," he says. "Most of our clients are just people whose
circumstances have changed. They've written cheques for a mortgage or
car payments and then lost their job."
Unlike neighbouring Abu Dhabi, where the same law applies, in Dubai
sentences for cheques related to the same case run consecutively,
rather than concurrently, leaving former businessmen with hefty
Facing one of the longest is Peter Margetts, 48, a property developer
from Kew. Margetts was cleared of fraud charges, but given 23 years
behind bars for bounced cheques. His 46-year sentence was halved on
"There's no defence to a bad cheque – if it bounces you go to jail," he
says. "I've exhausted all legal avenues and I've lost hope. I'm here
for longer than some people get for murder, rape and really heinous
Prison officials have repeatedly denied that any of the men are on
hunger strike, despite the fact that one Belgian inmate, Olivier Loeb,
who had begun to refuse liquids, collapsed in a court hearing on
Thursday morning and was admitted to hospital.
As growth and consumer confidence return to the UAE, outdated business
practices remain a concern to foreign investors. Officials have
complained that cheque cases clog the judicial system and the outspoken
chief of Dubai Police, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, is among those to call for
bounced cheques to be considered as a civil offence.
"Everybody knows there is a problem with the law," says Loeb. "They
just need to solve it."
240,000 Britons living in Dubai
0 Dubai’s income tax rate
265 Britons arrested in Dubai in 2010
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