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.
“I was present in the interrogation room when the police recorded their statements,” he says. “In most cases, the construction workers, cleaners and maids were used as drug carriers without their knowledge, either by recruiting agents or by people who offered them free visas. I vividly remember the case of two youths from Kalikavu in Malappuram who were offered a Saudi visa and fell for the trick in 1998.”
According to Krishnadas, migrant labourers who are convicted in the Gulf countries never get proper legal aid as the local authorities seldom inform Indian embassies about such arrests or trials.
“Our embassies don’t have a list of people who are jailed in the Gulf region or have only a limited knowledge about the offences for which they were arrested,” he says. “When somebody is beheaded in Saudi Arabia, the police usually return the passports to the embassy concerned. In most cases, the drug carriers who were arrested or executed were travelling on fake passports. So, the passport offices are unable to establish their identities. Most of those executed end up in the list of unknowns.”
Krishnadas warns migrant labourers not to get tempted by offers of free visas and tickets. “Earlier, recruiting agents used illiterate labourers as drug carriers by offering them free tickets,” he recalls. “In one case, two persons were asked to wear a company uniform before they boarded a flight from Chennai to Riyadh. The agent had concealed drugs in the clothes. On arrival, they were arrested and later beheaded. A third person who missed the flight was saved from execution.”
Both the Intelligence Bureau and the Kerala Police’s intelligence wing have notified the state and Central governments that the drug mafia uses the airports at Kozhikode and Chennai to smuggle drugs from Kerala to the Gulf region.
“People living in some pockets of Malappuram and Kozhikode districts have strong links with the drug mafia in the Gulf countries,” says P Vijayan, dig (Intelligence Wing). “They have a wide network for procuring and trafficking drugs and use illiterate and unskilled labourers who are eager to get a job in the Gulf countries. In many cases, we have found that the drug carriers caught in the Gulf countries were travelling with fake passports provided by recruitment and travel agents.
“The modus operandi is simple. They use illiterate labourers or request people boarding a flight to the Gulf to carry a packet for their relatives. Even if the carriers are caught, the mafia members won’t be under suspicion because the carriers have no direct links with them.”
Recent incidents in which two Malayalee youth were caught carrying gift packets in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait confirm the modus operandi used by the drug mafia.
“We should launch an awareness programme for migrant labourers going to the Gulf and tell them not to accept gift packets from strangers,” says a police officer. “Once they are caught, nobody can save them because the sharia courts are not at all lenient towards drug-related crimes.”
The drug mafia in the Gulf reportedly has links with certain recruitment agents in Kerala and Maharashtra.
Senior police officers in the state have identified Othukkungal and Vandoor in Malappuram district and Mukkam in Kozhikode district as the hubs of drug trafficking.
“The proximity to Kozhikode airport and the presence of a large number of labourers who work in the Gulf region make Malappuram vulnerable to drug trafficking,” says a police officer. “Drug smuggling is a risky business, but very lucrative.”
Kerala’s links with the international drug syndicate came to light in 1996 when 126 persons were beheaded in Saudi Arabia on drug trafficking charges. A majority of those executed were from Kerala. But in most cases, enforcement agencies could not trace the real identity or background of the offenders as many of them had used fake passports for their travel to the Gulf countries.
In 2000, seven Malayalees were executed in Saudi Arabia for smuggling heroin. In 2003, 53 people were beheaded in Saudi Arabia for drug trafficking; 18 of them were Indians. In 2004, another 35 smugglers were executed.
Hands Off Cain, a Rome-based NGO that has been campaigning against death penalty, has compiled the numbers of executions and death penalties in the Gulf countries. Their statistics reveal that executions have been increasing over the years. The report claims that 48 death sentences were pronounced in the United Arab Emirates in 2010, while nine sentences were commuted or overturned.
“The statistics provided by Hands Off Cain are not dependable because executions awarded in drug-related cases are not publicised by the Gulf countries,” says KSR Menon, journalist and writer who worked in West Asia for 16 years. “The verdicts given by sharia courts are not reported in the media. Even when they are reported, Indian embassies seldom take note of them. So many executions go unreported and remain unaccounted for.”
Meharoof, a native of Kattanad in Malappuram district, has seen first-hand the plight of workers tricked into carrying drugs. The 24-year-old businessman was behind bars for seven months in Abu Dhabi for using drugs. He was released and sent back to Kerala on 18 July.
“I was caught in Dubai with a recreational drug and later transferred to Abu Dhabi where I was doing business,” he says. “I started using drugs when I was studying for BBA in Coimbatore. In prison, I met several Malayalees who are undergoing jail terms for drug trafficking in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Many of them were duped as they had no knowledge about the parcels they were carrying.”
Throwing light on how strict the anti-drug laws are in the Gulf region, he says, “My father is a businessman and I was born in Abu Dhabi and spent all my years there. My family has good connections in the UAE government. But it didn’t help me when they caught me with drugs.”
Many innocent people caught for drug trafficking were forced to confess and charged with sections that carry maximum punishment, he says.
“The police exploit their ignorance by promising them a pardon when they are caught with drugs,” he says. “Such false confessions drive them to the death row. But many people who were trapped by the drug mafia were not informed about the legal system in the Gulf region.”
Naickam Ittiparambil Shajahan was one of them. The native of Mulavayal in Wayanad district had mortgaged his property and paid 40,000 to get a Saudi Arabian visa. That is when a travel agent offered him a free ticket to Dammam and asked him to carry a parcel in his luggage. On arrival, the packet proved to be his undoing. Shajahan was put behind bars for five years in a drug trafficking case. On 22 February 2005, he was beheaded.
“We have no idea how many Malayalees are lodged in Gulf jails for drug trafficking,” says P Sudeep, CEO of Non-Resident Keralite Association, a wing of the state government. “Occasionally, we get petitions from people when their relatives are arrested or sentenced to death. Recently, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy intervened in two cases in which two innocent youths had been duped into carrying drugs in their luggage. They were eventually released.”
According to Sudeep, the state government is going to launch an awareness campaign for unskilled and semi-skilled workers about the dos-and-don’ts while they board a flight to a Gulf country. “We have to educate migrant workers about the risks involved in carrying drugs and banned goods to Gulf countries,” he says.
Meanwhile, home Minister Ramesh Chennithala has initiated a Safe Campus campaign against drug use in educational institutions after the state intelligence wing put out an alert about the drug mafia operating in campuses.
“I want to make our campuses free of drug abuse as the drug mafia has built a network in cities and villages,” says Chennithala. “By targeting the youth, we are reaching out to the families. The campaign against drugs has made a positive impact as we are getting more information about the drug mafia operating in the state.
“But the drug syndicate operating in the Gulf is beyond our reach. I have directed the police to take action whenever a complaint is registered against its members.”
Better awareness and action against the drug mafia could save Indian workers from the death row. But the Ministry of External Affairs has never taken up the issue because it affects only poor migrant labourers, lament activists.
Krishnadas believes that the Ministry of External Affairs has to cop the bulk of the blame for the tragic situation. “If the immigration laws are strict and the Customs officials scan the baggage for drugs, many migrant labourers would not have ended up on the death row in the Gulf,” he says. “A majority of those who were convicted in drug-related offences boarded their flight from India. I suspect that there is a strong nexus between the drug mafia in the Gulf and immigration officials at Indian airports. If we had taken strong measures at the airports, we could have arrested the drug carriers here itself and many innocent people would not have undergone the misery of facing jail term or execution.”
Sebastian Paul, former MP and a leading lawyer in the Kerala High Court, also blames the Central government for why so many Indians end up on death row.
“We have failed to protect migrant labourers working in the Gulf countries who face discrimination and are subjected to human rights violations,” says Paul. “When I was a member of the Lok Sabha, I had visited many Indians languishing in jails in the Gulf and found that a majority of them never received proper legal aid when their cases were presented before the court. The Indian embassies in the Gulf are infamous for corruption and dinner diplomacy. It’s high time that we amended our emigration laws, which treat poor workers as slaves.”
Amnesty International India supports his views and has appealed to the government to amend emigration laws to safeguard the interests of migrant labourers.
“Migrant workers are vulnerable because of individual acts of deception,” says Amnesty International India deputy CEO Sashikumar Velath. “Recruitment laws are poorly designed and implemented. The Central government must draft a new emigration law that is consistent with international human rights standards and aligned with progressive emigration management systems.”
The Union government must expand the outreach of the pre-departure orientation and support programmes to inform migrant workers about the risks of carrying banned goods and harsh punishments for drug trafficking in destination countries and their rights under law, he adds.
Activists and lawyers are discussing new ways to protect thousands of Indian labourers working in the Gulf countries, but an ideal solution remains a distant dream. Even as the debate rages on, innocents will keep walking into the death trap set by the powerful drug syndicate.