Indian businessman writes off Dh1.5m debt for hundreds of UAE prisoners

Generous jewellery company chairman will also pay for flights home for former inmates to reunite them with families for Ramadan.

Firoz Merchant, the chairman of jewellery company Pure Gold, plans to spend about Dh1.5 million to pay the inmates' debts and buy their air tickets home. Christopher Pike / The National
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DUBAI // More than 1,000 prisoners who have served their sentences but remain in the UAE because of unpaid debts and fines could be reunited with their families this Ramadan thanks to the efforts of an Indian businessman.
Firoz Merchant, the chairman of jewellery company Pure Gold, plans to spend about Dh1.5 million to pay the inmates' debts and buy their air tickets home.
"The bottom line is that we should try to send them back home during Ramadan," said Mr Merchant, 54, who moved to the UAE from Mumbai to set up a jewellery business in 1989.
"One prisoner is equal to one family back home. They are the bread earners, so the longer they stay in jail, the more the family suffers.
"Ramadan is the month for giving so I want to put more effort to getting these prisoners in their own countries."
Since he began clearing prisoners' dues in 2011, Mr Merchant has spent Dh3.7m to free 3,700 inmates, including 500 this year.
He also plans to pay the debts of another 1,000 later this year.
The inmates he receives information about are from jails in all seven emirates. Their names are approved by the Al Faraj Relief Fund, affiliated with the Ministry of Interior.
Prison officials said he regularly follows up to ask about those in need.
"All the time Mr Firoz will call to ask," said Lt Col Ahmed Hamdan Al Zayuodi, the director of the Department of Penal and Correctional Institution of Fujairah Police.
"He will say, 'I have tickets to give, don't you have a prisoner?'
"It's a very good thing because these men have finished their time, but they don't have money.
"So we make him a file, all emirates make a file for him. We have prisoners here for many years and he wants prisoners to go home."
The repatriated inmates are from countries including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Morocco.
"I believe in humanity not nationality," Mr Merchant said. "There are 200 nationalities in this country so I don't believe that the criteria to help people is where they come from."
He has one caveat: he does not bail out those on murder, rape or drug charges.
But he will clear debts of up to Dh30,000 per prisoner racked up because of bounced cheques for housing rent, car loans, credit cards or unpaid education loans.
Mr Merchant was inspired to start the aid programme when scores of construction workers lost their jobs during the economic downturn.
"I started to think about helping out after the financial crisis. There were a lot of people behind, bars especially labourers," he said.
"Workers were in trouble because they could not get their salaries. It opened my eyes that this is my duty."
Mr Merchant first travelled to Dubai in 1980 and decided to start a jewellery business after visiting the gold souq. Nine years later he left India to set up a business from scratch.
His troubles helped shape the person he has become, he said.
"If I didn't have that experience then, maybe I wouldn't do this work now."
Despite the helping hand he offers to those who fall foul of the justice system, Mr Merchant said he remains a firm supporter of it.
"I have a very simple message: the law is the law. Everybody has to follow it whether you like it or not.
"If you don't like it, please go away because nobody forces you to stay here."
He often quotes his father's advice, given when he left India 24 years ago.
"He told me, 'you have two eyes so one is your home country and one is your host country. India is your home and if you want to stay in your host country UAE, you must follow the rules and respect the law'.
"I believe in the system. But I also believe we must balance our life, so we came here to earn but also to give something back."