Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had expected only freedom to Keralites lodged in jails in Sharjah so that they can return to their home state without any hassles when he made a plea for the release of those jailed in minor civil offences before the ruler of the tiny emirate during his maiden visit to the southern Indian state this week.
But, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, has gone few steps further and announced amnesty for all Indians, who have completed three years of their sentences in financial and non-criminal cases besides permission to continue to work in Sharjah and meet their debts amounting to Dh20 million (Rs 3.5 crore).
"This shows how initiatives like this can mitigate the sufferings of expatriates toiling hard in difficult conditions in West Asia. But the government authorities in India have not been doing anything even in the case of thousands of innocents languishing in jails in various countries across the region," said KV Shamsudheen, chairman of Sharjah-based Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust.
According to the statement made by Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar in Parliament in its last session, more than 50 percent of the 7,620 Indians languishing in different foreign jails, are in West Asia. More than half of these prisoners are said to be Keralites, who account for nearly 90 percent of the 2.75 million people from the state living abroad.
While Saudi Arabia has the highest number of Indian prisoners (2,084), the United Arab Emirates has 1,376 Indians in its jails, according to Akbar. The minister said that the main offences for which Indians were jailed in Saudi Arabia include drinking alcohol, bribery, financial fraud and burglary.
"These are major offences according to Sharia law followed by Saudi Arabia. But even religious acts such as public practice of religion other than Islam and even carrying a Bible or wearing a cross and civil acts like public show of affection, 'indiscreet' dress and open talk of sex that is considered normal in many countries are treated as crimes punishable in the conservative country," James Varghese (name changed), who escaped from Saudi after he was involved in a financial case, told Firstpost.
However, a majority of the Indians languishing in Saudi jails are innocent people who have landed in jails due to ignorance of the laws of the country or tricked by some, James said adding that ignorance of the law isn’t accepted as an excuse before the law in Saudi. He said that many who have arrived in the country without acquainting themselves with the Sharia law had landed in soup.
The law does not spare even the victims of various frauds. The Indians lodged in Saudi jails include many who were cheated by visa and flesh rackets. They were hauled up by the police for illegally staying in the country and pushed into jails, James said.
Even carrying chocolates containing alcohol is punishable in the country. A person, who bought such a chocolate from a duty-free shop at the airport, was put behind the bars in Saudi. The situation is not different in other countries in the region.
Sunil Mathew, who has been living in Dubai for more than two decades now, said the law was harsh even in countries like UAE, which is considered more liberal compared to other countries in the region. A British, couple who were caught kissing in the public in Dubai, where tourism is the main driver of the economy, was given a month in prison.
Apart from these, road mishaps have landed several Indians, who constitute a major chunk of drivers in the Gulf countries, in the jails. In UAE, if a person is hurt in a road accident, the man that caused the damage instantly goes to jail even if the person wounded is out of the hospital.
If someone dies in the accident, the man that was responsible for the injury is liable to give a $55,000 equivalent to Rs 36.03 lakhs at current exchange rates as fine called ‘blood money’ for damages. Even minor injury entails protracted litigation where the motorists are kept from leaving the country. The sum of blood money varies between countries and according to the circumstances of the death.
A local Muslim’s life will be assessed for a larger compensation than people of other religious faiths or nationalities. For example, in Saudi Arabia, a male Muslim’s life is worth SR100,000 (around Rs15 lakh at current rates), but Christians are worth only around half as much.
If the incident occurs in the Holy month of Ramadan, the penalty is usually doubled. The system of blood money is also prevalent in the case of other crimes like murder. A 22-year-old youth from Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram district had to raise Dh 200,000 (about Rs35 lakh) to avert capital punishment in a murder case. Sunil told Firstpost that many Indians were languishing in jails in UAE as they are unable to raise the hefty blood money.
Another major offence that has landed many Indians in jails is that related to narcotic cases. Production, possession and consumption of drugs invite harsh punishment in most Gulf countries. Many have landed in jail in connection with this offence.
The drug mafia, who have spread their wings in the wake of the Gulf boom, has been using expats as carriers with or without their knowledge. Shiju Thomas from Kerala has been such a victim of the drug mafia. He was allegedly given the drugs by a friend from Aluva in Ernakulam district, claiming the parcel contained books for another friend in Abu Dhabi.
But it actually contained LSD and he was caught at the Abu Dhabi airport on his arrival on 28 June 2014. Shiju, who worked as a fabrication worker, was released from jail in the UAE capital after the Kerala Police arrested four members of the drug mafia, who used Siju as a carrier and following intervention of the then chief minister Oommen Chandy and the external affairs minister.
Sunil said there were many such people languishing in jails for years. He said that they could be freed if the authorities in India take the initiative. However, none is showing interest in these hapless people, he said adding that most of them were even unable to contact their family members for want of money.
Even if they are released, many are not able to return to the country as they have debts to clear and no money to buy the tickets. Shamsudheen, who visited Indian prisoners in jails in Sharjah and Dubai several times, told Firstpost many of them, therefore, preferred to remain in jail.
He said that there were few takers even for the prisoners' transfer programme introduced as per an agreement signed between UAE and India in 2011. Under the pact, Indian prisoners can serve their terms in prisons near their homes in India where their families can meet them.
He said that only 10 percent of the 1,200 Indian prisoners lodged in UAE jails wanted to serve out their terms in prisons back home when their consent was sought last year. This, he said, was because the standard of living in UAE jails was better compared to that in India.
The Kerala chief minister is hopeful that the release of a large number of prisoners in the jails in West Asia can be secured since they are involved in petty civil cases. He said that it will be possible if the government of India takes the initiative.
Citing the humanitarian gesture displayed by the Sharjah ruler during his four-day visit to the state, Pinarayi has urged External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to direct Indian missions abroad to take steps to secure the release of similarly placed Indians.
Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 22:17 PM