Bounced cheque jailbirds hungry for change
... As cops try to help debtors heading for court, reports Myra Philp.
Up to 70 prisoners in Dubai Central Jail who are behind bars for bouncing cheques are set to join an Irish expat on hunger strike this morning.
Christopher Renehan, 38, who has served seven months of his six-year jail term, began refusing food six days ago and was joined on Thursday by a Belgian property developer who also wants to highlight his case.
Yesterday an inmate told 7DAYS: “On Sunday there will be between 30 and 70 of us on hunger strike. I do not want to give an exact figure until they start refusing food.”
Renehan wrote cheques for his company, believing the cash would be covered by a Dhs32 million refurbishment contract. However, he says, the company that owes him the sum can’t pay because he is no longer “authorised” to sign for the money.
Inmates claim there are currently more than 500 people in the jail for financial crimes - some of them serving life because of the number of cheques they signed.
Among them are businessmen who were once among Dubai’s biggest property developers. One inmate said: “Outside they have Dhs12 billion in assets of land or real estate which they either have yet to build on, finish, sell or develop.
“They want to be released to relieve some of the problems caused by their incarceration. They estimate that 8,000 families worldwide who have all invested in their properties or projects are affected by what’s happened to them.”
One of the longest-serving cheque fraud prisoners is British expat Peter Margetts, 48, who was sentenced to more than 40 years after investors in a huge project that stalled presented security cheques he’d written in advance to the bank.
Margetts claims he paid millions for a piece of land to build on – but the seller didn’t own the land and pocketed his cash.
Margetts, speaking publicly from inside the jail for the first time since he was sentenced, said: “I’m in here for bounced cheques. My sentence was reduced to 23 years on appeal, and I’ve served three years and three months of it.”
Facing another 20 years behind bars, Margetts, who will be nearly 70 when he is released, said: “Most of us are running out of hope.
“The guy who went off with my money ended up in here with me. He got six months. I got 23 years. It’s just unbelievable. We see people in for murder, for rape, for really heinous crimes and they do less time than we get. I can’t see an end to the problem. I’ve gone through the judiciary system,” he added.
The hunger strikes come against a backdrop where both Dubai and Sharjah Police have begun to arbitrate in reports of bounced cheques. Last week Sharjah Police announced that a special ‘Compromise Initiative’ had seen bounced cheque cases drop by 33 per cent in the first quarter of 2012.
The force said the initiative aims to settle money disputes amicably and has recouped Dhs11.3 million since the initiative started last year.
One Arab resident told police he was “bubbling over with joy” when his rent cheque bounced but he was given a month to pay without his case going directly to public prosecution.
A police spokesman said: “The banks said that before lodging a complaint against a client, which is the last resort, the bank seeks to settle the matter amicably, so banks strongly encourage such initiatives.”
Dubai Police Chief, General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, has previously called for a change in the law. In July 2011 he was quoted as saying enforcing cheque laws using the police was: “Not the proper way of doing things.”
This week, senior officer, Brigadier Jamal Al Jalaf, told 7DAYS the force was giving people a month to pay up before transfering the case to the courts. He said this had resulted in a 14 per cent reduction in cheque crime in six months.
However, London-based Detained in Dubai, which helps expats in trouble, says it is still contacted by an average of 20 people a week about financial crime in the UAE.
Founder of the organisation Radha Stirling said: “Most people who experience financial issues in the UAE wish to resolve their debts with the financier in good faith. Decriminalising the debtors would ensure they are not restricted from working in order to make payments.
“They would not be restricted from travel abroad for better work opportunities. Foreign debtors would no longer feel the need to flee to safety and therefore the banks would be more likely to retrieve their funds.
“It would be a very positive step forward in the UAE to encourage the amicable resolution of debts, rather than using the police and courts as a tool to bully payments.”
The hunger strikers are hoping international diplomatic pressure will spark a fresh look at the UAE’s financial laws.
HUNGER STRIKER BECOMING WEAK
THE cellmate of hunger strike Christopher Renehan told 7DAYS in a phonecall yesterday: “Chris is looking quite gaunt. He is only drinking water and is resting a lot. He’s been suffering from bad headaches and is getting quite irritable, although he is saying he is fine.” An Emirati lawyer told 7DAYS that hunger strikes are seen as a peaceful demo, adding: “It is a peaceful protest for demands and as such is not a crime. Such strikes have happened before in detention centres and the central jail for various demands. This is not the first time.”