Zakat alms worth Dh1m free 49 in prison for unpaid debts

Fund created in 2003 by Sheikh Zayed to collect and distribute Islamic alms in UAE collected Dh67 million last year.

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ABU DHABI // Zakat contributions worth Dh1 million were used last year to release from prison 49 Muslims jailed for bad debts. Zakat Fund officials also said yesterday that the upper limit on alms this year would increase from Dh50,000 (US$13,600) to Dh70,000 a person, which is likely to increase the amount spent on clearing bad debts in 2010.

Mohammed al Baloushi, an official at the fund, said the aim of the programme went further than just clearing debts. "We are working on safeguarding the structure and stability of the family," he said. Once a debtor was out of jail and back with his family, he said, he could "work on preserving and caring for it". The Zakat Fund is especially interested in the "Gharimeen" [the indebted] project, Mr al Baloushi said, as indebted people are among those most in need of help and support from the fund, which began focusing on the indebted in 2009.

The Fund itself was created in 2003 by Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, to collect and distribute zakat, the Islamic alms, usually figured at about 2.5 per cent of an individual's net income. It collected Dh67 million last year. The committee created to help debtors consists of officials from the Fund and the Ministry of Interior. The money is given to Muslims of all nationalities to pay off their debts.

While debtors are legitimate recipients of zakat, some contributors are concerned that their money could go towards helping people who had squandered loan money. Tay Nouri, 33, an Iraqi operations manager who pays the zakat through the Zakat Fund and Red Crescent, said: "I'm a bit concerned about it. You don't know what circumstances of people are and what made them not pay the money. The person might take the money and spend it on something that is not acceptable to God."

However, Mr al Baloushi, who heads the department overseeing eligibility for the Zakat Fund's support, said money would go only to people who had failed to repay money borrowed to pay for vital needs. "A debtor is someone who owes money for things like rent, paying for his children's education or getting necessary health care," he said. In addition, the fund will pay only for legal residents and those who have been sentenced to jail. One recent recipient was a Lebanese man who had been in jail for four years because he owed Dh40,000.

Mr al Baloushi said the money was not intended for property investors who owed money as a result of the financial crisis. He said the fund would not hesitate to allocate more money in 2010 to pay off bad debt, thanks in part to this year's much higher zakat revenues. In the first quarter of 2010, revenues were up 93 per cent over the same period last year. Hisham el Shaarani, 23, an Egyptian engineer, said he had no issue with the process if debtors were designated as needy under Islam.

"As long as it's religiously correct, I have no objection to them getting the money," he said. Mr el Shaarani also pays the alms tax through the Zakat Fund and feels that similarly large organisations are better equipped to identify people who legitimately need money. Mr Nouri agreed, despite his reservations. "They should distribute it based on their knowledge. I won't tell them who to give it to."