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INCARCERATION

Arabian Nightmare

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The trauma of three young Indian men who have been in jail in Saudi Arabia for the past seven years. Unless they pay Rs 5.6 crore, they could stay locked up all their lives. All they did, say their families, was rent a flat that happened to be the site of a scam run by its previous occupants

There is a clear view of the Arabian Sea from the first floor window of Ameena Banu’s home. Every morning, she wakes up and gazes at the watery horizon. Across the sea lies Saudi Arabia, where her youngest son is, and for whom her palms rise and come together in prayer day after day. “This has become a daily morning routine for her,” says her husband Arkula Kuchoor Mohammed, who, unlike her, cannot bear to look at the sea anymore.

Their son Nasir Mohammed Nasir, now 30 years old, was just 23 when he was jailed in Jeddah along with Fairoz Abdul Rahman Mohammed, now 34, and Abdul Rafeeq, 33. All three had gone to Saudi Arabia for the usual reason: to earn money. Their ‘crime’, according to their families, was that they rented the wrong flat. The three took residence in an apartment from which a hundi or illegal phone-calling racket was earlier being run. Phone call services were being offered at about one-third the official rate by tapping Saudi Telecom Co landlines.

The police arrested Nasir, Fairoz and Rafeeq just a day after they rented the flat in 2004, say their families. Clearly, therefore, they could not be blamed for the hundi operation. But they came in handy as fall guys. As luck would have it, their documents were not in order. With expired passports and missing work permits, they found themselves on very shaky ground in a country as strict on these matters as Saudi Arabia. If this deprived them of their rights, their poverty deprived them of the means to prove their innocence.

They were sent off to jail by a court that did not mention any limit on their prison term. Even now, they can go free—if they reimburse 4 million Saudi riyals (about Rs 5.6 crore), the estimated losses caused by the racket, and pay an additional fine of 100,000 riyals (about Rs 14 lakh). If they pay up, they will be released straightaway. If not, they could be locked up indefinitely.

While all of them are from around Mangalore, Karnataka, the three didn’t know each other back in India. Fairoz, an early dropout from college, left for Saudi Arabia in 2002 after getting a job through an agent. He later changed local sponsors, found himself without a regular job, and started his own business—selling merchandise for a commission—with the help of some friends who pooled money for the purpose.

Abdul Rafeeq lived near Mangalore airport and grew up watching planes land and takeoff. “His dream was to one day fly off to work in a distant land. Saudi Arabia was the first choice as we had relatives there,” says Mohideen, his father. Rafeeq first went there in 2000 and returned a year later, before going back in early 2003.

Nasir went to Jeddah in November 2001 after he quit his studies. He had failed in two subjects in his first year of college despite having got almost 90 per cent in his class 10 board exams, and was keen to start a career. A Mumbai-based agent helped him reach Saudi Arabia. In his weekly calls home, he would tell his parents that had settled down well and was making a good living by repairing mobile telephones and selling accessories. But he overstayed his visa. He lost his passport and did not report it, according to his family.

The three met while staying together with a larger group. All of them had similar small businesses to run, and so decided to move to a separate place and pool their resources. That was how they came to rent the fateful fourth-floor terrace flat, a studio apartment of sorts. They moved in the day they paid the advance.

The very next night, the police turned up and accused them of running a hundi racket from the premises. Deaf to their plea that they had just moved in, the police made them sign some documents in Arabic, as their families allege, and detained them at a police station for over a month before packing them off to prison. The police did not intimate the Indian embassy, and so their families had no clue where they were for months. Mohideen, for example, learnt of his son Rafeeq’s imprisonment only six months later, when a friend of his son informed him of it.

Their trial, held three years after their arrest, was swift and shattering. The judge pronounced them guilty and ordered them to cough up 4 million riyals. The case papers make note of their lack of passports and other documents at the time of arrest and hold them complicit in the hundi scam. Details of the evidence presented against them are unavailable, so the validity of the charges cannot be verified independently, but their families are convinced of their innocence.

 

Towards the end of 2004, Nasir’s elder brother, Abdul Rasheed, also landed in Saudi Arabia for a job. Upon arrival, the first thing he wanted to do was hunt for his brother. It was an alien land and he had no clue how to go about it. “It’s such a huge place and difficult to move about because of the hot weather. I could go in search of him only on Fridays, the weekly holiday. It took me some weeks to trace him to the fourth floor room from where he was arrested. Later, I went to jail to meet him,” says Rasheed, now back in India after a five-year stint.

The jail, Rasheed found, was a huge airconditioned building, like a factory shed, with no natural light filtering in. “The main gate would open at 1 pm, and for that we needed to get in queue by 9 am in the open. There was no tree in sight. We had to wait on our haunches in the sweltering sun. If we stepped away to buy water, we would lose our place in the queue. After the gate opened, there were two other gates that we had to pass through before being allowed in batches to meet prisoners.” Inside, in Rasheed’s recollection, conversations had to be held across three rows of grills, with guards patrolling the corridor in between. “There was no physical contact. If we had to hand over anything, it had to be done through the guard. We were allowed to give them only white clothes and up to 200 riyals a visit,” he says, “Visiting hours were from 3 to 5 pm, and in this too, it being a strict Islamic country, there was a prayer break for 25 minutes. So all that visitors would get was a minute or so.”

For the trio’s families back home, news from Rasheed came as a relief. It was the first confirmation that they were still alive. But the time since has been very painful. “Those boys have become men in the last seven years. Their dreams of earning money and ours of getting them married have been shattered,” says Mohideen, Rafeeq’s father, who has not seen his son since he left home in 2003.

It has also been eight years since Fairoz’s mother saw her son. The toll it has taken is evident in the hysterical screams we hear on reaching the family’s small house in Ullal, 20 km from Mangalore. Neighbours say that she has lost her mind and advise us not to enter the house, as she is known to assault visitors with utensils. “The womenfolk [of their households] were not told that their sons were in jail,” says Mohideen. It was Nasir’s parents who let the secret out when they met them.

In Saudi Arabia, after meeting his brother in jail, Rasheed had sought the help of the Indian consulate in Jeddah, but to no avail. For seven years, Indian diplomats looked the other way. Back in India, their families have spent the past four years writing letters to Indian authorities, from Cabinet members like Vayalar Ravi and E Ahamed to External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, pleading for New Delhi’s intervention. They even met and handed over a letter to Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. After a long delay, they recently received a written response that the Indian embassy in Riyadh would look into the case.

Nasir’s father Mohammed ekes out a living from a small second-hand furniture business he runs on Mangalore’s Car Street. “It is a matter of pressing the right buttons to get the boys released,” he feels. To that end, he has spent a considerable part of his savings travelling and meeting political leaders to help save his son. One former Union minister from Mangalore, whom he knew personally, told him that he couldn’t help since he’d lost power.

Yet, Mohammed and his wife Ameena are better off. They could at least meet their son in late 2006/early 2007, unlike the other two families who depended entirely on others for news of their sons. It was a stroke of luck that gave Nasir’s parents their visit to Saudi Arabia.

On the urging of Ameena, who was desperate to get there any which way, they applied for the Government’s Hajj quota, and were ecstatic when they were selectthrough a lottery. Once there, they excused themselves from Mecca and went to Jeddah along with a relative who had a car. At the jail, they were not allowed in, and asked how they had turned up without any papers (the passports of Hajj pilgrims are taken away the moment they land in Saudi Arabia and they are given only an arm bracelet for identification). “We were wearing only unstitched whites. But given my strong urge to see my son, I bulldozed my way through all the questioning and gates,” recalls Ameena, “But the authorities were mean and denied us a meeting on some ground or another. After ten days of trying, we got an assurance that all three would be brought to court and we could meet them there.”

They finally met Nasir in court. He was shackled at the ankles and cuffed to the other two. He was in white robes, a headgear and had grown a bushy beard that descended to his chest. “I could hardly recognise my son,” says his mother who had last seen him as a skinny 19 year old. With the help of a Pakistani policeman, they got 90 minutes with Nasir. They also met Rafeeq and Fairoz, both of whom she describes as tall and fair with light beards.

Friends in Saudi Arabia who have kept track of the case say that Saudi Telecom Co is willing to settle it for Rs 40 lakh each. Mohideen says the families are willing to try raising the money, but nothing is official about the offer. “It’s only hearsay,” he says, “That is why we want the Indian embassy to intervene in the case. Any settlement must involve the Indian Government, or else we are afraid we will be cheated.”

Rasheed says he has already had a bitter lesson in paying money to Saudi locals who pretended to have the clout to have them released. “Till they get the money in their bank, they are very polite,” he says, “Later, they don’t even pick up their phones, and in some cases, make their wives answer. In Saudi Arabia, if you shout or even speak in a raised tone to a Saudi woman, even over the phone, she can call the police and get you arrested. So, the moment we hear a woman’s voice, we know the man has cheated and it’s best to move on.”

Thankfully, prison conditions there are not bad. “The government assures them a small stipend and three meals a day, apart from regular medical check-ups,” says Rasheed, who last visited them two years ago before returning to India, “If they want biryani instead of a regular meal, they can buy it for 15 riyals… But the problem is, they can only get out if they pay the fine. This is what is killing them. Their fellow inmates say they have a few days, weeks or months to serve, but in their case, the judge has not [specified a term for their] sentence.”

“How can we pay that kind of sum?’’ asks Mohideen, referring to the Rs 5.6 crore. Both he and his wife are unwell and have large hospital expenses. “I had not told my wife about his being in jail for one-and-a-half years,” he explains, “When it became clear that he won’t come back soon, I had to tell her. She broke down and never recovered.”

The families say the boys were earning well and sending home Rs 15,000-20,000 once every two months at least. By Rasheed’s estimate, each of the three earned some 1,000-2,000 riyals per month. Such earnings are quite good for illegal immigrants: those, that is, without passports and work permits.

It is common knowledge that Saudi Arabia crawls with such workers who have typically either been ditched by their agents or fallen afoul of local sponsors (to whom they’d surrendered their passports on arrival). Instead of returning home, they do odd jobs on low wages. “Local agents exploit such migrant workers, mostly from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka who are paid anywhere between 500-1,000 riyals. It’s a pittance, but they can expect it to increase in a few years, and in any case they would have earned only a fraction of it back home, given their poor qualifications.”

When such immigrants want to return, the common practice is to give themselves up at the nearest police station for their respective embassies to be intimated. After a brief verification, they are issued temporary passports for their exit. “It’s as simple as that,” says Rasheed, “as the kingdom is rather forgiving that way.”

Over the past few months, some Riyadh- and Jeddah-based social service groups have been taking up such cases. The case of the three accused of the hundi operation has attracted attention too, but it’s not clear if anything will come of it. There is also unconfirmed news of Saudi Telecom Co agreeing to drop its 4 million riyal demand so long as the three pay the 100,000 riyal fine. “We want the Indian embassy to speak to the company and confirm these developments, as it is the court that has fined them. We want to follow the due process of Saudi law, of which we have no clue. Someone should know whether the offer is genuine,” says Mohammed.