According to him, there was nothing extraordinary about that night in January four years ago. He was asleep on a tattered mattress in a room that he shared with 15 other men when he heard the sound of someone breaking into their home. It was the police. Soon, he meekly followed his housemates as they were all led into vans and taken to a police station. He thought it was about his status as an illegal immigrant.
This is not how he had imagined life would turn out. He had left his small village in Punjab three months earlier to pursue the Great Gulf Dream. “We had no money for my education or to set up a business. My job prospects were bleak. I had nothing to do there,” says 27-year-old Satnam Singh. His father, a foreman in a bicycle factory in Ludhiana, could barely scrape together the Rs 150,000 that had to be paid to an agent who promised his son a job in the UAE, a carpenter’s job that would fetch him a monthly salary of 900 dirhams (just over Rs 13,000) “We borrowed heavily from relatives, but I was not worried. I knew it was just about getting there, and then I could easily clear off the debt.”
Satnam Singh was wrong. For two months, he stayed in ramshackle wooden cabins that served as labour camps while he waited for a job. Eventually, he was asked to leave. With no work permit, no money and no place to stay, he was now one of over 45,000 illegal immigrants overstaying their visas in the UAE, most them poor daily wage workers like him who could afford neither their travel back nor stay there. “One of my acquaintances asked me to move into a three-bedroom villa with 45 other people. It was the only way we could afford to live.”
On reaching the police station, Satnam Singh found that the police had brought in 70-75 people, all poor labourers like him. The Sharjah police, which was specifically looking for Sikhs of Indian origin, eventually let everyone go except 17—who were identified on the basis of the kadas (bracelets) they had round their wrists—and charged them with the murder of a Pakistani national, Mishri Khan. Of the 17 accused, 14 were Singh’s housemates: “For three months, we had no idea that we had been accused of murder and only found out in court accidentally when the judge said it. It did not bother me as I was innocent; we all were, and they had no proof to prove otherwise.”
Mishri Khan had died in a clash among bootlegging gangs over a turf dispute between members of rival gangs that sold liquor in and around Sharjah’s industrial labour camps. (Lack of access to alcohol— it requires hard-to-get licences and involves quotas—has led to a thriving bootleg market for booze in the UAE. Most bootleg gangs are run by South Asian construction workers, mainly Indians and Pakistanis looking to make a quick buck. Sharjah, which has stricter laws than other emirates, has witnessed a number of violent clashes between gangs over the spoils of this business.)
On 28 March 2010, almost a year after they were apprehended, the Sharjah Sharia Court of First Instance sentenced Singh and the 16 others to death. It was the largest number of defendants ever sentenced to death at one go in Sharjah, and the case drew worldwide attention. “It took me three days to react to the news. I spent the first two days in shock and decided to call my parents on the third day.” They already knew. “During the trial, one of the witnesses was asked to identify the ones involved in the crime. He couldn’t recognise a single face. Despite that, we were sentenced,” he says.
The widespread media attention, though, is what gave the sentenced a second chance. When the news reached Punjab, the families of the accused appealed to the state government and Indian Consulate to step in. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) then hired Dubai-based Mohamed Salman Advocates and Legal Consultants to re-appeal the case.
The case also attracted the attention of businessman and hotelier SP Singh Oberoi, chairman of the Apex Group of Companies, a group that supplies equipment and services to the construction industry, who is also president of the Sarbat da Bhala, an NGO registered in the Gulf. Shocked at the harshness of the sentence, Oberoi decided to investigate the case. He flew from the UAE to India to run a background check on the prisoners. “If they were bootleggers, they would have been making a substantial amount of money to send back home,” he says, “I wanted to check on their families to see how they were faring.” He found them all hard pressed for money. Extremely poor, these families had sent their sons to the Gulf for better prospects, and many had been duped by crooked agents. Oberoi then went to visit the prisoners in Sharjah. He wanted to give them hope that he would do all he could to get them back home.
Meanwhile, Lawyers for Human Rights International (LFHRI), an organisation of lawyers based in Punjab, also decided to visit the 17 prisoners. On 13 and 14 April 2010, a two-member team of human rights lawyers Navkiran Singh and Gagan Aggarwal visited the convicts and their defence team. The meeting, which lasted two hours, revealed apathy, racial bias and botched up facts by the Police of Sharjah’s CID Branch. These details were then filed as a PIL at the Punjab & Haryana High Court in Chandigarh. Based on this, the court issued a notice to the MEA and Indian Consulate in the UAE asking them to explain why they had failed to protect Indian citizens abroad and devise an effective way to ensure fair trials for all Indians overseas.
It soon emerged that ‘blood money’ was the only way out of the 17. According to Sharjah’s application of Shariah law, this is a sum that a convict must pay the victim’s family for a pardon. The amount varies by the seriousness of the crime, and is accepted by the State only if the victim’s family approves of the measure—which could result in the sum going up as part of a deal—and signs a letter of pardon in court.
Originally from Patiala, Oberoi, who started his career in 1978 as an engine mechanic, moved to Dubai in 1993. He has helped get 84 convicts off death row and life imprisonment (this includes Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) by paying blood money on their behalf. He also regularly sponsors the travel of petty criminals who cannot afford their tickets back home and instead languish in Gulf jails for several years.
As a result of Oberoi’s efforts, the case of the 17 on death row was reopened on 19 May 2010, and he began negotiations with the family of the murdered Pakistani, Mishri Khan.
“Of all the things that I do to help people, convincing families to accept blood money is the hardest of all,” says Oberoi, “How do you tell them to accept money in lieu of the loss of a family member? In most cases, they just want justice.” His hardest case, he recalls, was one that took a month to convince the family; it was the murder of a Pakistani, Mumtaz Yusuf, who was survived by a father and three sisters. “I eventually had to call the father to the UAE, have him stay in my hotel for a month and slowly broach the subject of making his life easier.” When that did not work, he spoke to the sisters of the deceased to reach out to their father. In most cases, the promise of a comfortable life is too hard to ignore, as the families of most are exceedingly poor.
On 27 July 2011, Oberoi successfully convinced the family of Mishri Khan to accept $1 million in blood money and sign a letter of pardon in court. It was an emotional moment for the 17 young men, who finally reached home after gaps ranging from five to seven years. “When we were at the airport, I just couldn’t believe that we were coming home,” says Satnam Singh, “I kept touching everything around me to convince myself that this was not a dream.”
Oberoi, who has been in India since their return, has been looking after the well-being of their families, and says his priority now is to help them get jobs. He worries that lack of employment may lead them to drug abuse, a common problem in Punjab. Meanwhile, Oberoi is seen as a hero in the state for what he has done. He is somewhat embarrassed by all the attention. “Yes, I know that it’s a large sum, but these boys were innocent and I felt it was my moral obligation to help them. I don’t want to be celebrated, I just want to help people as much as I can,” he says, sipping lassi in his office at his modest Patiala home, the walls of which are lined with various awards conferred on him by local and state authorities.
He talks expansively of his various philanthropic achievements. These include running eye camps, creating crèches in jails, organising mass marriages for the poor, aiding hard-up students with money for education, and—his latest— building houses for those in need. He is unsatisfied with initiatives taken by other NRIs in Punjab, and mentions an impending trip to Jalandhar to meet an NRI Sabha where he is scheduled to speak on his social contribution. “Giving back to society gives me inner peace,” he says, “That is all there is to it.” With that, he gets into his Land Rover, guarded by two policemen, and drives off.