Police raid foils trafficking operation

At least 13 Moroccan women claim to have been forced into prostitution by 14 Syrian men charged with operating several brothels.

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ABU DHABI // Police say they have foiled what could be the capital's largest human trafficking and prostitution ring. Among the defendants are 14 Syrian men charged with operating several brothels and overseeing women who were sent to work in five-star hotel clubs, a packed room at Abu Dhabi Criminal Court heard yesterday.

Although the scale and length of the alleged operation is not yet clear, 13 Moroccan women testified yesterday that they had been promised jobs but were instead forced into prostitution upon arrival. An Ethiopian woman who was with them said she had been simply working as a housemaid at one of the alleged brothels. None of the women were charged with a crime. A woman identified as Fatima, also from Morocco, allegedly lured her compatriots with the promise of jobs, prosecutors said. She is said to be based in Morocco and has not been charged.

Upon landing in the UAE the young women were met by a Syrian man, identified as SS, the alleged ringleader, who purchased them from Fatima and forced them into prostitution, according to prosecutors. SS is believed to be in Syria and is being tried in his absence. There is no international arrest warrant for him, according to Interpol. Court documents seen by The National state that the women were being housed in several flats in the Tourist Club area and in a villa in Al Bateen. They allegedly were driven under strict escort to five-star hotel clubs in the capital and were forced to have sex to pay back expenses that had been fronted by SS.

In November, two of the Moroccan women escaped their alleged captors and travelled to Ras al Khaimah, where they went to the police. According to defence lawyers, RAK Police contacted Abu Dhabi Police, who raided the locations and arrested several men and women. The women were said to have been chauffeured to private homes. Some of them said they were forced to have sex with as many as 20 men on these visits.

According to prosecutors, the first of the women arrived in 2006 and was also forced to work in Qatar and Oman. The women are now being housed at the Ewaa Shelter for Women and Children. A representative from Ewaa who was present yesterday declined to comment while the case is ongoing. There is also a 15th defendant, a Syrian, accused of having sex out of wedlock with one of the women in the brothel. He pleaded guilty and testified that he often came from Sharjah to have sex with one of the women who told him that she was "forced and trapped" into having sex and needed a way out.

The defence attorneys for the men argued that the women were not forced into being prostitutes, but instead were operating freely. "How can a woman who has her own mobile phone and is free to go to clubs and hotels say that she was forced?" one of the defence attorneys asked. "Was there not a moment when she could have called the police or asked for someone to help?" The case was adjourned until Sunday.