For the past four years, C.V. Kunhibi from Vattakkinar, Kozhikode, has been praying for her son Mohammed Shameer’s release from a Qatari jail.
“We find ourselves forsaken, bereft of any helping hand to secure his release,” the 72-year-old says.
Having lost her husband a few years ago, Ms. Kunhibi has a chronic rheumatic ailment that confines her mobility. Shameer spent 30 years in Qatar, working for small businesses and contracts. At home, he supports a wife and four children. And this 51-year old is not the only one facing this hardship.
Approximately 500 Indian expatriates, mostly from Kerala and other South Indian States, languish in Qatari prisons for financial crimes. Though the rule says Indians can partner with Qataris on a 49:51 basis for business, the reality is different as actual responsibility falls on the shoulders of Indians. When businesses fail, Indians suffer the most, burdened by loans they can’t repay.
Many feel that the Centre hasn’t done much to help them. In Kozhikode’s Pavangad village, Anusmrithi Arun’s husband, K. Arun, who was part of a trading company is stuck in jail for over four years due to a cheque bouncing case, just days after their marriage in 2019.
“Since then we have been knocking on every door to secure his release,” she says.
R.J. Sajith, president of the Indian Pravasi Movement, an association that has initiated the ‘Breaking Handcuffs’ movement, plans to raise funds with the support of prominent NRI businessmen, investors, and humanitarians.
“The goal is to speed up the prisoners’ release by paying the fines. We would need to raise about ₹200 crore to release the identified 473 prisoners,” adds Mr. Sajith who had spent 10 years in jail for an alleged economic offence but was fortunate to be released after a prolonged legal battle.
The latest figures from the Ministry of External Affairs indicate that a majority of Indians in foreign jails for economic offences are in Gulf countries. Among these, the UAE has the highest number with 1,611 prisoners. Saudi Arabia follows with 1,461 Indian prisoners, and Qatar comes next with 696, which also includes persons arrested for other offences.
The situation in Qatar became more complex when the US-backed Gulf Cooperation Council’s economic crisis affected a significant number of Indian investors in the country in 2017. “Although Qatar has made general improvements after the economic blockade was lifted three years later, entrepreneurs are yet to be successful after the financial crisis,” says Prajeesh Thiruthiyil, president of the Indian-Qatar Entrepreneurs Action Council, another organisation working for the release of Indian prisoners.
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