Abu Dhabi: A minimum sentence of four years in jail for drug usage and possession is too harsh and could ruin many a young life, a top judicial official said.

The law sentences drug users to a minimum of four years in jail and a maximum of 15 but this makes for a very strict sentence, especially for a young defendant who might still be studying, Chief Justice Saeed Abdul Bashir, head of the criminal court at the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, told Gulf News.

"However, it is the government's right to give drug dealers tough sentences, including death penalties and life imprisonment, because they are the reason why drug users become addicts and cause much harm in society," Justice Abdul Bashir said.

The judge's observation came after a spate of tough sentences were handed out to drug dealers and addicts in the past month by the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance.

A 22-year-old man was given the death penalty because he had entered the UAE with Dh440,000 worth of drugs in his possession, and tried to sell four kilograms to an undercover police officer. Another alleged drug peddler from Bangladesh was yesterday sentenced to life in prison.

Recently, a Tanzanian cocaine dealer who struck a deal of $70,000 (Dh257,026) for a kilogram of his contraband with an anti-narcotics department secret agent was also sentenced to life imprisonment. Drug users, on the other hand, received jail terms of four years followed by deportation.

Justice Abdul Bashir said there was no doubt that drug addicts posed serious social problems besides the physical damage they inflicted on themselves. He however pointed out that some drugs like opium, morphine and hashish were not as serious as heroin, which could seriously affect the memory and impair mental faculties.

"There have even been instances where addicts have sold or killed their own family members to be able to get money to buy the drugs. Such crimes cannot be taken lightly," he said.

He however stressed that it was more important to tackle the threat posed by drug dealers. "We issue harsh sentences for dealers to act as a deterrent for people who want to deal in drugs. Because of these sentences, people are likely to think twice before they start dealing and this will hopefully reduce drug usage as well," he said.

When asked whether dealers could appeal their sentences, the judge said they did have the right to do so. "In fact, public prosecutors automatically refer cases with death sentences to the Appellate Court even if the accused does not ask for an appeal, because this is a human rights issue," he said.

Death penalty: Peddler convicted

A man accused of selling drugs in the capital was handed the death penalty recently by the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance.

According to police records, the 22-year-old Afghan man had recently entered the country on a visit visa with the intention of selling drugs.

Colonel Hamad Ahmad Al Hammadi of Abu Dhabi Police said the drugs had been smuggled into the country hidden concealed in electronic devices.

"Eight kilograms of drugs, worth Dh440,000, were concealed within 51 electronic items including DVD and CD players and car stereos," he said.

The defendant had offered to sell four kilograms of heroin for Dh220,000 to an undercover agent from Abu Dhabi Police, and was arrested as he was trying to make the transaction.

The police then found four more kilograms of drugs in the man's hotel room in Dubai. The contraband was seized with the help of Dubai Police.

With input from Rayeesa Absal and Samihah Zaman, Staff Reporters