When Shiju Thomas arrived at the Abu Dhabi International Airport on 18 June, he was still in mourning. Just two weeks ago, he had buried his father back home in Ernakulam, Kerala. He was reluctant to leave his grieving mother and return to his job as a fabricator in Abu Dhabi, but he had plenty of debts to pay off.
Many emotions were swirling in the 29-year-old’s head as the security personnel sifted through his luggage. Fear was the last thing on his mind. As the authorities inspected a packet of medicine again and again, he felt uncomfortable. When they asked him to step into a room, fear became the predominant feeling. A security officer told him bluntly, “Mr Thomas, you are under arrest for smuggling LSD.” His world came crashing down.
When Thomas was in Kerala to attend the funeral, he had a call from his colleague Rinoy in Abu Dhabi. Rinoy wanted him to carry a parcel from his friend Amal George for his cousin who was working in Abu Dhabi. Shiju agreed to carry what seemed to be a packet of medicine as he was travelling with minimum luggage. Little did he know that he was going to be a drug mule.
As Thomas languished in the Abu Dhabi prison, his family and friends ran from pillar to post to prove his innocence. Fortunately, the Kerala Police cracked the case and nabbed the real culprits. On 24 July, Thomas was released from prison after 36 days (see case study).
Thomas’ story had a happy ending, but there are hundreds of Indians who are not so lucky. Nobody knows how many have lost their lives so far or are behind bars in the Gulf countries on drug-trafficking charges, most of the time unknowingly. Their names remain withheld, death sentences are never reported and families are clueless about their executions.
CK Krishnadas, who ran an interior design business in Riyadh and Dammam, Saudi Arabia, from 1980 to 2002, met many Indians on death row. The police used him as the official translator when they interrogated Malayalees who had been arrested for various crimes, including drug trafficking.
Krishnadas, 57, who is now the district president of Pravasi Sangam, a CPM umbrella organisation that looks after the welfare of non-resident Keralites in Malappuram, believes that many of the Indians beheaded for drug trafficking were innocent.
On the scenic island of Pizhala in Ernakulam, Jancy Manuel, 54, was probably the happiest person last week. On 24 July, she had spoken to her youngest son Shiju Thomas after he was released from prison in Abu Dhabi.
“I thank everyone for helping us get justice for my son,” she says. “Finally, my son could prove his innocence. He was released after spending a month and six days in jail.”
Last December, Jancy dreamt of a comfortable life when Thomas got a job with Giffin Graphics in Abu Dhabi as a fabricator. Thomas had gone to Abu Dhabi so that he could repay the 1.5 lakh loan taken for his sister’s wedding. But he had to rush back after his father’s death in May. Manuel was a fish vendor who used to traverse the backwaters in his boat and sell the catch of the day. On 30 May, the boat sank in the backwaters. A polio-stricken Manuel, 64, could not swim to safety.
When Thomas was in Kerala, he got a call from his colleague Rinoy in Abu Dhabi. Rinoy wanted him to carry a parcel from his friend Amal George for his cousin who was working in Abu Dhabi. Shiju agreed to carry the parcel as he was travelling with minimum luggage. When Thomas arrived at Abu Dhabi on 18 June, police found 0.135 grams of lsd in his bag and arrested him.
“We wanted to kill Amal George for trapping my brother,” says Joshy Sebastian. “When we consulted the local elders, they advised us to stay calm and identify him. We filed a complaint in the Aluva Police Station.”
Meanwhile, Rinoy returned to Kerala and confronted George. George confessed to his role in the drug trafficking and revealed how he had concealed the lsd stamps inside the parcel. Rinoy used his mobile phone to secretly record their conversation and handed the evidence to the police. On 22 June, Geroge was nabbed.
Suhara Kunjalavi was born in a poor family. Her parents got divorced when she was just three and left her in the custody of her maternal grandmother. Since then, she has been at the mercy of others. When she was in Class IX, her grandma arranged her marriage with a local youth.
“I was 14 when I married Kunjalavi, a labourer, in 1987,” recalls Suhara. “After marriage, he went to Saudi Arabia and worked there. Two years later, he returned to Kerala and worked as an auto broker and real estate agent. We had a good life. Our son Ashik was born in 1990 and daughter in 1992.
“Sometime in 1993, he told me that he was planning to go back to Riyadh for work and was getting a job visa through friends. I was not happy with his decision. But he wanted to save money for our daughter. He left home in June 1993. I don’t remember the date. That was the last time I saw him.”
Later, she came to know through his friends that he was arrested for drug trafficking and beheaded in 1996.
“I came to know about his arrest very late,” she says. “I wondered why he never wrote to me. There were no telephones in our area during those days. In 1996, I got a letter apparently sent by my husband. He revealed that he was going to get beheaded for drug trafficking, and asked me to take care of our children. But I don’t think he wrote that letter because the handwriting was different. I received that letter 50 days after his alleged execution.
“I have no idea how he got involved in drug trafficking,” she says. “Some people told me he was trapped by his friends who gave a visa and used him as a drug carrier.”
She kept that letter in a box. But the letter also vanished, just like her husband. Now, she has no proof of his death.
After his death, Suhara’s life was trapped in poverty. She had no job. Feeding her children was her first priority. Initially, she worked as a maid in a school for the handicapped. And later, as a helper in a local hospital.
Carrying medicine for an acquaintance proved to be a bitter pill for Rashid Aboobaker. On 25 June, the native of Meenappis in Kasargod district was returning to Kuwait after attending his sister’s wedding. Along with his luggage, he was carrying a tiny packet as per his friend’s instructions.
Little did he know that the packet contained 700 tablets of methadone, an opioid analgesic. Methadone is used as a cheap replacement for heroin by drug addicts across the world.
“I have been working in Kuwait for the past 18 months as a household help,” says Aboobaker. “I met CK Favas at a music concert in Kuwait. He was from Mattool in Kannur district. He used to call me once in a while and chat on WhatsApp. When I told him that I was going home for my sister’s wedding, he requested me to bring back some medicine for his friend.
“I came home on 18 June. His friend Nasim Mustafa came over and handed me a packet. I didn’t check it because I trusted him. When I arrived in Kuwait, the airport security checked my baggage and found the banned drugs in the packet.”
When they heard the news, Aboobaker’s shocked friends tried their best to convince the Kuwaiti officials about his innocence.
When they alerted his family about his arrest, his father and uncle lodged a complaint with the Kanhangad Police, narrating the circumstances leading to his arrest. The police registered an fir and launched an investigation. They located Mustafa and arrested him.
For the past two years, TK Sainaba had been living on false hope. She knew that her husband Abdul Bashir, a taxi driver in Kuwait, was in trouble in a drug trafficking case. But she did not realise the gravity of the situation.
“On 24 July, he called me from jail to say that he has to serve a jail term for 15 years,” says Sainaba. “I was under the impression that he would be coming home soon.”
Sainaba got married to Bashir in 1990 when she was just 13. She was a Class VII student and he was a hotel cook. Before she turned 20, she was the mother of four girls.
“My husband left for Kuwait in 2002 and got a job in a hotel there,” says Sainaba. “Thanks to his remittances, we managed to build a house and got two daughters married off. Meanwhile, he got a driving licence and started working as a taxi driver. He had come home for the marriage of our second daughter and returned on 7 December 2011. That was the last time I saw him.”
After returning to Kuwait, Bashir bought a new car and started his own taxi service. He was very popular among the Malayalees working there and had a packed schedule.
“He was very happy because he was earning better than earlier,” says Sainaba. “We had taken a loan for our second daughter’s wedding. He told me that we could repay the loan within a year. But he was arrested on 16 June 2012. I came to know about it through his friends.”
On that fateful day, a Malayalee businessman hired Bashir’s car for a half-day trip. The businessman was a regular customer. After visiting two places, the businessman and his friend asked Bashir to wait inside the parking lot of a mall and went inside. While he was waiting, members of the Kuwait Police’s narcotics cell surrounded his car and took him into custody. They seized 40 g of brown sugar from the car.
The police checked his mobile phone and tracked the passengers. Soon, they raided the flat where the businessman and his friend were staying. The police seized 1 kg of brown sugar and arrested the businessman. His friend had already fled. I borrowed Rs 9 lakh and sent it to a lawyer in Kuwait to fight his case. But now I realise that it was of no use.”
For Vengeri jerish, excess baggage proved to be the difference between life and death. On 13 April, the 28-year-old native of Naduvannur village in Kozhikode district was returning to Kuwait, where he works as a shop assistant. He was supposed to carry a parcel for an acquaintance, but decided not to at the last moment because his luggage had already overshot the 25-kg limit.
“I thank god for helping me take the right decision at that moment,” he says. “The parcel contained 1.28 kg of brown sugar. Nobody would have believed that I was innocent. I would have been on death row by now. After a year, they would have shot me for drug trafficking.”
It all started when he got a call from his friend Chakkeri Sreejith, who was working as a driver in Kuwait. Sreejith, who had come to Kerala on 30 March to attend his father’s funeral, requested Jerish to carry a parcel on his return trip. On 12 April, Sreejith handed over an envelope and a 2 kg parcel. He told Jerish that the parcel was meant for his friend and contained a pair of jeans.
On the day of his departure, Jerish found that his luggage exceeded the limit of 25 kg and left the parcel at home.