Charity no solution to debtors' prisons

The magnificent generosity of an anonymous donor has freed 20 debtors from prison. That's wonderful, but throwing honest debtors in jail still does more harm than good.

Generous acts during Ramadan are a time-worn tradition. While observing zakat obliges Muslims to be charitable year-round, the practice of giving to the less fortunate picks up during the holy month. And this year is no exception.

Through a Dh1 million act of magnanimity that The National reported yesterday, an anonymous Emirati benefactor has freed more than 20 prisoners serving jail sentences for unpaid debts. The expatriates among those released also had their plane tickets home paid for by the donor. For those Muslims released this act of charity means the joyous prospect of celebrating Eid with their families.

"We have a lot of prisoners in financial cases who have no means of paying the debts off, and this amount helped to release many people, who are Emirati and non-Emirati, and who come from all religions, to be released," said Maj General Mohammed Al Suwaidi, the director of Dubai Police Prisons and Correctional Facilities.

But the question remains whether many of these ex-prisoners should have been jailed in the first place. As we have argued previously, prison sentences for debtors can be self-defeating for banks and authorities alike.

With a significant percentage of the UAE workforce being transient, some expatriates find it more appealing to leave abruptly than to resolve their obligations. People like that, and those who indulge in fraud or other criminal financial activities, deserve to feel the full force of the law.

But many other debtors languishing in our jails, both Emiratis and expatriates, are not criminals but merely honest workers who have fallen on difficult times. Incarceration, or confiscation of passports, prevents them from seeking work to earn money to pay their bills. There is sometimes no way out.

In these turbulent financial times, acts of generosity like the one by the mysterious benefactor are to be lauded. But for a long-term solution to the perennial issue of people who can't pay their debts, a rethink of existing practices is urgently needed.

Published: August 19, 2011 04:00 AM