When prison is not the right penalty

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When prison is not the right penalty
Mahmoud Habboush, THE NATIONAL, 22 APRIL 2009

Last Updated: April 21. 2009 / A minister yesterday said that two types of common offences – traffic violations and antisocial behaviour – could soon be punishable by community service.

A draft law was recently approved by the Cabinet that would give courts the power to order people convicted of minor crimes to work in the community instead of serving jail time.

Speaking to members of the Federal National Council yesterday, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, the Minister of Interior, for the first time specified the category of offences and types of community service that could be included.

It remained unclear, however, exactly what crimes would be covered.

Referring first to antisocial behaviour, he said community service could help address the fact that the federal Government had no plans to follow some emirates in introducing a code of conduct.

He was responding to a question by an FNC member from Abu Dhabi, Ahmad al Dhahiri, who complained about the lack of a federal code of behaviour.

Dubai, for instance, has introduced such a code. Among other things, it says that people can be warned or fined for public displays of affection.

In severe cases, they can face jail terms and deportation.

The emirate’s code also calls for people to respect the local culture and religion, and urges visitors to avoid wearing clothing that “exposes parts of the body”.

“The ministry has taken an important step which is the alternative penalty law that will be brought before your council … soon,” Sheikh Saif said.

“Community service was suggested for simple crimes committed by individuals instead of sending them to prison.

“People who face penalties are members of the society, and sometimes prison doesn’t achieve the punishment that the Government is seeking, and therefore community service is suggested.”

Responding to a suggestion by Mr al Dhahir that the Interior Ministry distribute a booklet explaining to foreigners how they should behave in the UAE, Sheikh Saif said: “I can’t make people read the criminal law.”

Instead, he said, a new department at the ministry, expected to start operating in the second quarter, would be responsible for promoting respect for the law.

He suggested it would take some time to educate visitors: “We can’t educate people in one or two years.”

Turning to community service for traffic offences, Sheikh Saif said: “They would be sent to schools to talk to pupils about their mistakes or would be told to spend time in the emergency rooms at hospitals to see for themselves the danger of their actions.” In the US and the UK, among other countries, community service is imposed for a range of offences.

Service can involve working in teams with other offenders, tidying up scenic spots, removing graffiti or carrying out anti-crime measures, such as installing gates and security locks. Others could be ordered to work in charity shops, for instance.

Also during yesterday’s session, the Minister of Health, Humaid Mohammed Obaid al Qattami, promised that more jobs would be created in the coming year for doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics across the country.

Mr al Qattami was answering a question by Salem al Naqbi, a member of the Federal National Council from Sharjah, who said that Emirati doctors were doing jobs that were below their qualifications. The member also said hospitals and clinics were understaffed.

The minister said measures were being taken to “improve the conditions” of ministry staff. He said the ministry had more 1,766 job openings in 2008, most of which have been already filled.

“Hopefully, in co-operation with the Ministry of Finance in the coming weeks the conditions of more than 700 employees will be improved,” Mr Qattami said.

The FNC members also passed a draft amendment of some articles of a 2006 law on the banning of production, storage and use of chemical weapons. It calls for the creation of a national committee to monitor and regulate the use of dangerous chemical substances and chemical weapons. The committee would be also responsible for enforcing the law.

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