Dubai businessman pledges AED1.5m to free indebted prisoners

More than 1,000 prisoners who have completed their jail terms but remain in the UAE because of unpaid debts will be returning home after a Dubai-based businessman intervened to pay off their dues

Firoz Merchant, the chairman of jewellery company Pure Gold, plans to spend AED1.5m (about $408,000) to clear the inmates’ debts and to pay for their airfares home.

“These people aren’t financially capable of paying off their debts or for their ticket, so they’re trapped here,” said Merchant, who moved from Mumbai to Dubai in 1958 to establish a gold brokerage. “It’s not just one person who is behind bars, but the whole family. Everyone suffers.”

Many of the prisoners fell into debt when the UAE’s property bubble burst after the 2008 global economic crisis, bringing its construction industry to a near-standstill.

Bouncing a cheque is a criminal offence in the UAE, punishable by fines or jail terms, however post-dated cheques are frequently used as a guarantee by businesses and banks to underwrite everything from car and home loans, to credit cards.

Since he began bailing out prisoners in 2011, Merchant has helped to release 3,700 inmates and paid off around AED3.7m worth of debt.

Prisoners from countries including Jordan, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and the Philippines have been able to return home.

“Prisoners are sometimes not as visible to society,” he said. “But when you visit the people behind bars, you see their life, you can’t help but be sympathetic.”

The inmates are selected by the Ministries of Interior in each of the seven emirates, and their information passed on to Merchant. He will clear up to AED30,000 of debt per prisoner, in addition to funding their journey home.

His only stipulation is that he will not aid murderers, rapists or those found guilty of drug charges.

“I don’t favour any nationalities or any religions,” he said. “Whoever is on the list drawn up by the prisons, I will help. It is entirely the decision of the ministries.”

Merchant has already received the names of inmates in Ajman and Umm al-Quwain, some of who require as little as AED650 to secure their release. He hopes all of the 1,000 prisoners will be home in time to mark Ramadan with their families.

“My deadline to finish this is the first week of Ramadan,” he said. “I have the first cheques ready, so it is just a case of the prisoners being processed. I want them home to celebrate with their families.”

Privately-held Pure Gold operates 125 stores in 10 countries, with around 3,5000 employees and an annual turnover of $1bn. It plans to open a further 325 stores by 2018, including 16 additional duty free outlets.