Offer therapy, not punishment, after attempted suicides

For unknown reasons, a 46-year-old Dubai housewife from India recently attempted suicide by swallowing 50 paracetamol tablets and slitting her wrist with a kitchen knife. Her husband found her lying in a pool of blood, called an ambulance and her life was saved. After she was treated at hospital, Dubai Police referred her to the Public Prosecution and she was charged with attempted suicide. Judges at the Dubai Court of Misdemeanours gave her a one-month suspended jail sentence.

In Abu Dhabi, a young Filipina woman tried to commit suicide by throwing herself from a sixth-storey window after writing a letter stating the reason for her attempted suicide: her boyfriend had cheated on her. She lived, apparently because she landed on a car which broke her fall. She was also given a suspended sentence.

In the UAE, as in many Muslim countries, attempted suicide is a criminal offence that can carry a penalty of up to six months in jail, a fine of as much as Dh5,000, or both. People who are convicted can face deportation and be blacklisted from re-entering the country.

To many, it does not make sense to try to deter people from killing themselves with a prison sentence. As a courts and justice reporter, I have raised the issue with medical specialists, religious scholars, judges and lawyers and none of them approved of the law - although they did offer explanations for it.

One such explanation is that attempted suicide is a crime because it is forbidden in Islam. This can be easily refuted. Sharia makes it clear that, first, punishment is deferred until the Day of Judgment. Second, punishment is prescribed for suicide - not for attempting the act. This is a crucial distinction.

"A man was wounded among those who were before you," Prophet Mohammed told his companions. "The man was terrified so he took a knife and cut himself and he died instantly. God then said: my worshipper has precipitated himself into me, I have deprived him from heaven."

In another Hadith, the Prophet says: "He who throws himself down from a mountain and dies will dwell in hellfire and be continuously thrown in it for eternity; he who poisons himself and dies will take his poison to hellfire and will be sipping it for eternity; and he who kills himself by a metal piece will carry his metal piece and have it in his belly for eternity."

Certainly these Hadiths specify punishments for suicide (although failed attempted suicide is not mentioned) but they occur after death. Sharia does not specify a criminal punishment for suicide, unlike for offences such as murder, illicit sex, drinking alcohol, verbal abuse and theft. Suicide, therefore, is a sin - not a crime.

There are, however, other stated rationales for the law besides Sharia. First, the law helps keep suicide "in the closet". If suicide is a crime, it is not a social or public health problem that needs to be addressed in other ways.

A more complex justification is that the law enables prosecution of people who aid or encourage a person to commit suicide.

But neither of these reasons really justifies a law that is a burden on both the justice system and the medical profession. One judge has told me that many justices did not see the point of criminal trials for people who had attempted suicide. "They belong to psychiatric clinics, not here," he said.

It is a sentiment echoed throughout the legal system. "This is futile," Nashwa Al Qubaisi, an Abu Dhabi-based lawyer, told me. "This issue needs a psychological solution more than a legal solution. They need to go to rehab, not prison." Because the burden is on the courts, lawyers and judges have to deal with problems better left to therapists and social workers.

Which is not to say that assisting suicide should not be a criminal offence. A new law could be introduced to criminalise aiding or encouraging people to commit suicide.

But as the law works now, medical professionals are deterred from offering assistance that could actually prevent a suicide. A doctor who does not alert authorities risks being prosecuted, and the penalties are even stiffer if the patient is a child or a person unfit to make his own decisions. The fear of prosecution forces doctors refuse to help or to violate confidentiality with their patients.

A 27-year-old woman from Al Ain told The National that she had approached several psychologists and psychiatrists in Al Ain and Dubai in an attempt to help a teenage friend who had repeatedly attempted suicide. Everyone had refused to help.

Many people considering suicide might not seek help for fear of being turned in. This is where the criminalisation of suicide has the most insidious effects. But it is also unnecessary. As the Supreme Court ruled recently, a failure to comply with medical ethics - including confidentiality requirements - is a violation of federal laws.

In 2009, 86 people killed themselves in Dubai, and 66 in Abu Dhabi. It is believed, however, that some suicides are not recorded as such, and far more cases of attempted suicide are never reported.

There is a school of Islamic jurisprudence that stipulates that if the text of Sharia law conflicts with common sense given the circumstances, the text should be reinterpreted. But in suicide cases, we do not even have to reinterpret the text. A person who commits suicide is a sinner, not a criminal. Attempted suicide is not even mentioned.

People who attempt suicide should be kept where they belong: clinics. A prison sentence does not deter anyone from self-harm. If anything, the law pushes people farther towards the brink.

Published: August 5, 2011 04:00 AM


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