Police officer spells out letters of the law

In a nation as diverse as the UAE, getting everyone on the same page about crime and punishment requires a complex outreach effort.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - February 11th, 2009:  Dr. Salah Al Ghoul of the Abu Dhabi Police is in charge of informing workers of their rights.  (Galen Clarke/The National)

ABU DHABI // Lt Col Salah Alghoul's job is to lay down the law. For legislation to be effective, the people it applies to need to know of its existence, understand what it means and know when they are breaking it.

But in a nation with a majority migrant population, made up of such disparate groups as tourists, labourers, expatriates and Emiratis, ensuring everyone appreciates what it takes to remain a law-abiding citizen is a complex procedure. And that is where Col Alghoul comes in. As director of the Office of Culture of Respect for Law, part of the Ministry of Interior, it is his responsibility to ensure the laws of the land are understood.

Speaking for the first time about his role, he said: "Rights and responsibilities, rights and duties: the law applies to everybody; everybody has to obey our law. Nobody will be arrested unless they break the law." His department was established early last year to raise awareness about the legal and social aspects of laws. And the focus has been to make sure everyone, regardless of their position in society, appreciates how it works.

"A lot of people are ignorant of the law," he said. "There is a legal rule that says as long as the law has been introduced, people have to abide by it whether they are aware of it or not. However, the Ministry of Interior realised this was not enough. "In order to reduce the rate of crime, we should reach out to people and get them to understand the law - their rights as well as their duties." Now, a cluster of 10 officers is using various tools, from workshops with community police to lectures at labour camps, to spread the message. Some of the initiatives are already under way in schools and teach children to respect the law by understanding it first. Audio and video programmes make students aware of traffic rules as well as how to treat their housemaids with respect.

Col Alghoul said the new approach was intended to go beyond "arrest and investigate". "We are now service providers. And of course, we cannot see the results within months or even within years." He said an entire generation would need to be educated in order to achieve the department's goals. As part of his research on implementing an educational programme, Col Alghoul, an academic, spent two months travelling to countries such as Australia, Singapore and France to observe how their police interacted with their communities.

"Why is the respect of the law in those countries better than what we have in the Middle East?" The answer, he said, was education. "We cannot come back here to a 50-year-old man and just ask him to respect the law," he said. Instead, the Ministry needs to make sure people understand cause and effect. "This is the law - if you break it, this is the punishment," he said. Col Alghoul added that the same message is sent to children via games in the curriculum.

The idea of outreach to workers, regardless of whether they are professionals or semi-skilled, literate or otherwise, culminated in the publication of a booklet called The Worker: Rights and Duties. After conducting lectures in labour camps across the country, Col Alghoul and his officers spent some more time compiling frequently asked questions by labourers. Answers were then provided to police from Musaffah to Ajman so that officers were better equipped to help.

Ultimately, the questions and answers were turned into the first of a series of booklets, published in six languages: Arabic, English, Tagalog, Chinese, Urdu and Persian. The next booklet will also be published in Malayalam, an Indian language. Lt Col Alghoul said the Ministry preferred to publish a series of booklets rather than publishing "30 pages and then workers would just throw it away". "We are doing it step by step," he said.

The booklet touches upon aspects of working in the UAE. It reaffirms that workers are "free to practise your religion and this is according to the constitution". It also explains that proselytising is prohibited. Instructions on how to report a crime, how to sign a contract and what practices are illegal are also outlined. "Foreigners are the majority here and come from different backgrounds, different levels of education. Some of them are illiterate and they are afraid of going to the police," he said. "In the booklet we published, we focus on the criminal law aspect, not the labour or immigration law aspect."

The workshops and lectures are aimed at workers who are illiterate so that they, too, are protected under the law. "We do not claim we live in a paradise, but compared with other countries, it is fair enough what we have reached and what we are going to reach. We are on our way to reaching equality." hhassan@thenational.ae sbhattacharya@thenational.ae