Abu Dhabi : Human Traffickers Sentenced to Life Imprisonment


ABU DHABI - JAN 20: The Criminal Court in Abu Dhabi yesterday sentenced seven men to life in prison the harshest penalty possible for their roles in operating the capital’s largest known human-trafficking ring.

It marked the first time anyone had been convicted of the crime under the “organised criminal gang” clause of Federal Law 51, according to Dr Saeed al Ghufli, co-ordinator of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking.

Six other people, accused of assisting with the trafficking and exploitation of the victims, were each sentenced to 10 years. All will be deported after completing their sentences.

Rights groups hailed the sentences as a victory for the 18 victims in the case.

“I am, of course, pleased with the verdict and sentence,” Dr al Ghufli said. “They deserve this harsh punishment, which shows the commitment of the UAE to face this crime and to take a strong position.”

Sarah Shuhail, the executive director of the Ewaa Shelter for Women and Children, which has housed and cared for the victims since they were rescued by police, described the verdict as a “great achievement”.

“This is the justice we seek to obtain for the victims,” she said in a statement. “It is a real victory not only for our shelter, but also a victory that shows the results of the efforts made through the co-operation of all [government] entities the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, the police, public prosecution and the judicial system.”

The suspects’ lawyers called the sentence a “grave injustice” and “too harsh”, saying that the maximum term allowable is 10 years.

Law 51, issued in 2006, states that “the penalty shall be life imprisonment if … the perpetrator is a member of an organised criminal gang, or has consciously taken part in the activities of that gang”.

It is only the second time a life sentence has been handed down in a human-trafficking case; the first occurred in Ras al Khaimah last year.

The suspects’ lawyers said they would appeal against the verdict, delivered in less than two minutes and greeted by outrage from the families of the suspects.

A legal expert who is familiar with the case said: “The court is trying to send a clear message that they do not tolerate trafficking in humans, but in this case there were many unanswered questions.” He said that the law seemed to offer an avenue for prosecuting clients of the traffickers and the venues, such as bars or hotels, where the women were forced to work.

The defence has 15 days to appeal the verdict, and stands a good chance at having some of the sentences reduced, the expert said.

According to Maitha al Mazrui, Ewaa’s co-ordination and follow-up officer, the moment the women heard the verdict was “very emotional”. She said it was a “very big relief” for everyone involved.

“It’s like we are living with the women we’re all together here all day, so it affects us, too,” Ms al Mazrui said. “Especially when you work so hard for it and you get that result the harshest sentence possible. They got what they deserve and I feel as though something was really done.”

The victims, all women from Morocco, will now prepare to return to their home country. But they will not go back empty-handed.

In November, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, who supported the opening of Ewaa, visited the shelter and met with the women privately. After her visit, she donated Dh1 million (US$272,000) to Ewaa, with an undisclosed sum earmarked for each of the women to help them rebuild their lives. According to Ms al Mazrui, Sheikha Fatima personally followed up on the case.

The investigation revolved around a group in Abu Dhabi who purchased women from a recruiter in Morocco. The women were promised work in hotels and high salaries, but once in Abu Dhabi they were told the truth: they would be forced into prostitution until they could pay back the money spent to bring them to the UAE. The victims were locked into several flats on the island, beaten and starved, according to their testimony to investigators.

The criminal group operated a complex web of handlers, drivers and clients described in more than 400 pages of court documents. The operation comprised 12 Syrian men and one Moroccan woman, who is married to one of the men, the documents show.

She was sentenced to 10 years for her role in assisting; her husband was sentenced to life.

One of the men, considered by prosecutors to be the “kingpin” of the operation, escaped to Syria as soon as he learnt of the arrests, according to documents. He was sentenced in absentia yesterday to life in prison. An international warrant for his arrest is expected to be issued with Interpol.

The victims, some as young as 19, were chauffeured to clients in hotels and homes under guard by their handlers. They said they were threatened and told a lie: that they could not contact police, because their captors had strong connections within the department.

It was not until October 28, when one of the women escaped the villa in Al Bateen in which she was being held, that their story reached the police. A complete stranger, who heard the woman’s story shortly after she escaped, paid for her taxi fare to Ras al Khaimah and connected her with a friend who took her to police there. Authorities in RAK contacted the police in Abu Dhabi.

A few days later, the Abu Dhabi police raided three flats in Al Bateen and the Tourist Club area, arresting 12 men and one woman. As many as 18 women who were locked inside the flats were rescued after the police broke down the doors. The National previously reported 14 women were rescued, but according to a court official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the number was actually 18.

It was not known how long the ring operated.


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