As Dubai rebounds, victims of the financial crash go on hunger strike in prison

Outside Dubai's Central Jail is a panoramic sweep of the city's skyline, rising higher again amid an economic rebound. Inside the prison are scores of hunger strikers who claim they are paying an unfair price for the last spectacular boom-then-bust tumble.

The hunger strike started last month by a few prisoners — all convicted under the strict financial laws of the United Arab Emirates — has swelled to more than 50 inmates demanding authorities reconsider convictions that can bring years behind bars for a single bounced check.

It marks a rare stand in a country that effectively bans political activism and swiftly cracks down on sporadic labor protests, such as a strike in May by south Asian construction workers who were promptly forced to leave the Emirates. The hunger strike also touches highly sensitive issues of investor risk as Dubai tries to rebuild its high-flying image after a stunning financial crash landing more than four years ago.

"If we don't succeed now in making our voices heard, we may never succeed," said an Indian businessman who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for bouncing checks.

His environmental engineering company had issued post-dated checks, a common practice in the UAE as a form of step-by-step payments for contracts, loans or rent. But when Dubai's economic collapse hit in 20090, his customers halted payments and the businessman no longer had the money to back up the checks when they came due.

"How are we supposed to deal with debt issues if we are in prison?" he told The Associated Press by a prison phone. "We are trapped."

The businessman and other inmates spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of complicating their legal appeals.

Some of the hunger strikers, he said, have been refusing meals for up to five weeks, but are taking liquids. Some received medical treatment in the early stages of the protest about five weeks ago, but have been returned to prison, he said.

Emirati officials have not publicly commented on the hunger strike, which was described in interviews with more than a half dozen prisoners and relatives. The inmates are all non-Emiratis, since recent reforms freed any citizens convicted for check bouncing.

The cautionary tales from Dubai's financial nosedive in the global economic crisis are many. In particular, the city-state is working through a mountain of legal cases that include business figures jailed for unpaid debts when the cash flow dried up.

Now as commerce and property development surge back to life, authorities are trying to reassure markets that old laws are being rewritten to put greater protections in place. Regulators are working hard to convince investors that the state can ward off a replay of the property bubble, which had prices skyrocketing at more than 70 percent a year in 2008 before a steep plunge. On Sunday, the Dubai Land Department doubled the property transfer fees in an attempt to discourage speculators seeking a quick profit.

The breathless salesmanship, however, is back as well.

Dubai's biggest real estate expo, Cityscape, opened Tuesday with a buzz not seen in years. The eye-popping plans include a "waterfront" development astride manmade lagoons and 24-story building called "The Pad" designed to tilt at a 6.5-degree angle — more than the tower in Pisa, but still less than a leaning building already built in Abu Dhabi.

It all rings very familiar to the hunger strike protesters, most of whom were part of Dubai's first wave of white-hot growth.

Most offer similar stories: They were unable to cover obligations, such as post-dated checks, because payments from customers and others came to halt.

Under longstanding UAE law, bounced checks carry a three-year maximum jail term per each recipient. Sentences decades-long have been given for multiple bad checks. Civil charges can bring additional jail time.

Last year, a presidential decree waived potential criminal charges for Emiratis who bounce checks, and in 2011 set up a $2.7 billion settlement fund to clear defaulted debts of UAE nationals, according to Fitch Ratings.

Meanwhile, new fiscal oversight could eventually lead to decriminalizing check-related cases for everyone else in the country, where foreign workers outnumber locals by 5-to-1. Finance Ministry undersecretary Younis al-Khoori was quoted as saying that the first step is setting up a national credit bureau possibly next year.

But the hunger strikers do not want to wait, and worry about how quickly their cases would be reviewed even if the laws eventually change.

"We are speaking for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of people like us who have been caught in situations out their control," said a Pakistani inmate, who claimed he was working in the finance department of a real estate company and was authorized to sign checks. He said was sentenced to two years in prison when some of the company checks bounced.

"I was just a worker," said the man, who dropped 15 kilograms (33 pounds) in the past month. "Now I am the one in jail."

An Iranian-American businessman, the former managing director of a London-based real estate firm, said he was passing through Dubai's airport this summer when he was arrested on charges stemming from bounced company checks issued as collateral for a loan. His sentence: Three years.

"I won't stop fighting," said the businessman, who has not joined the hunger strike. "They think I was the owner of the company. I was just a hired employee."

There are no comprehensive figures on the number of people jailed in the UAE on bounced checks since many of the cases include other charges. Some reports have placed the number at about 500.

But local media reports cited more than 1,000 Emiratis released from check-linked sentences after the law was amended.

Emirati defense lawyer Ali Al Haddad said the problem is not in the laws, but "with who is writing the check."

"Who is the real victim here? The guy who gave the check or received the check?" he said when asked if the laws should be changed. "People must understand they will face problems if they write a check that bounces."

One Pakistani business owner faces possibly 40 different criminal court cases. He has spent the past 4 ½ years in prison while authorities work through his case file, said his wife, a British national.

Just before Dubai's economic crisis, the former property developer had moved into a new office space and purchased equipment for his 16 employees. When the economy imploded, he was unable to honor to the post-dated checks.

"We're not criminals. We're family people," she said. "If I lose my husband, what did I lose him for?"