Many of these men are on death row for bootlegging-related murders. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Bloody turf battles to control illegal alcohol trade in the country's labour camps have landed dozens of Indian youth in jail, with many facing death for allegedly killing rival gang members in Sharjah and Dubai.

An XPRESS investigation has revealed that UAE courts have sentenced 22 young Indian men to death in the last three years. The fate of others is equally grim, with many facing capital punishment as they await final judgments.

But more shocking is the fact that of the 60 youngsters, aged between 19 and 28, who are on death row or are being prosecuted, 59 are from just one Indian state -- Punjab. One youth is from neighbouring Haryana.

These include the 17 Indians who were sentenced to death for killing a Pakistani during a territorial fight to control the illegal liquor trade in Sharjah early this year. All but one hail from Punjab.

This case shook the Indian community here and media attention prompted the Indian government to provide legal assistance to the convicts. Indian President Pratibha Patil who concluded her five-day visit to the UAE today (Thursday) said, "The welfare of the overseas Indian community is a top priority for our government."

The high point of her historical trip was the launch of the Indian Workers Resource Centre, a unique initiative to provide a 24-hour helpline and counselling services for Indian workers. A similar service called Overseas Workers Resource Centre already exists in Punjab and Haryana.

But sources feel that such helpline alone will not work and the Indian government must do more to prevent Punjabi youth from getting sucked into the illegal alcohol trade here.

Punjab is one of India's most prosperous states and though it takes up only 1.5 per cent of the country's geographical area, it contributes over 60 per cent of India's total foodgrain production.

For years, people from Punjab have also contributed to the growth of the UAE. But now this enterprising community from India's most robust state is making news for all the wrong reasons.

Community concerned

Concerned over the involvement of an overwhelming number of Punjabis in bootlegging cases, members of the community are reaching out to them. Rana Gurmit Sodhi, chief whip of the Congress Legislative Party in the Punjab Assembly, told XPRESS from Punjab, "Punjabis are not criminals. The community is very large and has produced successful businessmen, professionals, even members of parliaments and governors in different countries."

There are around 100,000 Punjabis in the UAE — not just blue-collar workers, but also successful businessmen, doctors and high-ranking executives.

"Youth recruited from Punjab should be adequately counselled before they arrive in the UAE. They should be given a list of dos and don'ts in keeping with the laws of the land," he added.

Similarly, S.P. Singh Oberoi, founder member of the Indian Punjabi Society in Dubai, said the root cause for the malaise could be the extreme poverty in some pockets of Punjab where families barely have two square meals a day or a roof over their heads.

Oberoi's assessment is not off the mark.

Punjab has the distinction of initiating India's first Green Revolution and still contributes significantly to foodgrain production. But of late, it appears to be falling on bad times. Indian government figures show a drop in farm yields, with land holdings shrinking fast.

Desperate youth are now said to be turning to alcohol. Nothing illustrates this better than reports suggesting that a staggering 290 million bottles of liquor were consumed in Punjab in 2009-2010.

"The Punjabi youth held on bootlegging charges in the UAE are from poverty-stricken backgrounds. With hopes of a turnaround, they took hefty loans to come here and work as carpenters, plumbers and labourers," said Oberoi who has taken it upon himself to get their death sentences commuted on humanitarian grounds.

Families' plight

The death sentences have far-reaching consequences for the families of the convicts.

Family members interviewed by XPRESS were clueless that these men were involved in bootlegging in the UAE.

With tears in her eyes, Manjit Kaur, the mother of Sukhjot Singh, one of those on death row in the case of 17 Indians, said she had taken a loan of Rs100,000 (Dh12,000 approximately) to send Sukhjot to the UAE to work as a carpenter.

Ranjit Kaur, the wife of another convict, Dharampal Singh, said her husband, who also came here as a carpenter, used to send money home every month until he was arrested. "But things have gone so wrong now," she said.

Sources said most youths involved in bootlegging cases were initially hired for skilled jobs and were earning up to Dh1,200 a month. But soon they were drawn towards another trade - the lucrative and dangerous business of bootlegging that has killed an unspecified number of people in gang wars. Plying alcohol in labour camps, they earn up to Dh500 per day, the sources said.

An XPRESS story in August that uncovered the illegal alcohol business in labour camps around Jebel Ali found that the trade was dominated by Indian Punjabis. Various factions with 40-50 youths man these areas. Territories are clearly defined and trespassers are dealt with ruthlessly. Turf wars are routine and have already claimed many lives.

Valley of Love, a prominent Dubai-based NGO, feels the setting up of a multi-purpose welfare centre at the labour camps would go a long way in helping the migrant workforce to abstain from undesirable activities. The centre can be used to educate, counsel and entertain the labourers in suitable ways, a spokesperson said.

A comment from the Indian Consulate was not immediately available.


Following are the court cases of Indians held for bootlegging and murder in Dubai and Sharjah over the past three years:

DUBAI

I. Case No 37803/2009

Victim: Ashok Kumar of Punjab killed in December 2009
Accused: 13 Indians, two Pakistanis and one Bangladeshi

Status: Honey Bangra, Sukhdip Bal, Sunil Masih, Ramji, Vijay Kumar, Makan Lal, Bhupinder Singh - in jail along with Pakistanis Abu Al Imad Shibli Mohammad Akram and Ehsaan Allah Ud Din and Bangladeshi Eman Hussain Khalil Majee. One Indian Chiranjit Singh, found innocent, has returned to India.

Five others - Jatinder Singh, Lakhvinder Singh, Harpal Singh, Buta Singh and Amarjit Singh - released on bail, but travel ban imposed on them.

Pardon letter from victim's family submitted to Indian Consulate to be forwarded to Foreign Office for submission in court. If accepted, death sentence may be reduced for all accused, including the non-Indians.

Last hearing: November 11
Next hearing: December 23

II. Case No 2167/2009

Victim: Indian from Kerala killed in January 2009
Accused: 10 Indians and one Pakistani

Status: Sukhdip Singh, Rakesh Kumar, Sarabjit Singh, Rashpal Singh, Manjit Singh, Balwinder Singh, Sukhwinder Singh, Major Singh, Amarjit Singh and Harpinder Singh with Pakistani Farar Ahmad in jail. Defence asked to submit final documents.

Last hearing: October 19
Next hearing: December 12

III Case No 1165/2009

Victim: Indian from Kerala killed in January 2009
Accused: 12 Indians, 1 Pakistani

Status: Sukhdip Singh, Rakesh Kumar, Sarabjit Singh, Rashpal Singh, Manjit Singh, Balwinder Singh, Sukhwinder Singh, Major Singh, Amarjit Singh, Surjit Singh, Balwinder Singh and Surinder Singh and Pakistani Mohammad Rafat in jail. More time sought to prepare defence.

Last hearing: October 25
Next hearing: December 12

SHARJAH

I Case No 901/2010
Victim: Misri Khan of Pakistan killed in January 2009
Accused: 17 Indians

Status: Sukhjinder Singh, Sukhjot Singh, Ram Singh, Aarvinder Singh, Baljeet Singh, Daljeet Singh, Dharampal Singh, Satgur Singh, Satnam Singh, Kashmir Singh, Suban Singh, Kulvinder Singh, Kuldeep Singh, Sukhjinder Singh, Namjyot Singh, Harjinder Singh, Taranjit Singh on death row. Sole witness failed to identify suspects. Blood samples of accused not taken for matching. Defence wants to see other evidence.

Last hearing: November 4
Next hearing: December 16

Sentenced to 25 years in prison

II Case 14039/2008
Victim: Bikramjit Singh of Punjab
Accused: Three Indians
Last hearing: October 27
Next hearing: December 1

Status: Accused Pradeep Kumar, Kashmiri Lal and Tarlochan Singh in jail. Compromise documents submitted in August. Death sentence waived. Accused to spend five years in prison. Case in appeals court for reduction in imprisonment term.

III Case 11706/2009
Victim: Mumtaz Yousuf of Pakistan
Accused: Eight Indians, two Pakistanis
Last hearing: October 26
Next hearing: December 27

Status: Kuldip Singh, Sachin Kumar Sharma, Rashwinder Pal, Sukhpal Singh, Rakesh Kumar, Hardev Singh, Charanjeet Singh and Amarjeet Singh and Pakistanis Mohammad Ansar Chaudhary and Shahid Hussain Ifthreen Rana in jail. Victim's father in Dubai. Negotiations on for compromise.

IV Case 127331/2007 & 13981/2008
Victim: Mandip Singh of Punjab
Accused: One Indian
Last hearing: October 25
Next hearing: December 13

Status: Death sentence to Sandeep Singh Sangra reduced to life imprisonment after he pleaded innocent. Negotiations on for further settlement.

V Case 14062/2007
Victim: Indian from Kerala
Accused: Two Indians
Last hearing: November 3
Next hearing: December 8

Status: Jaswant Singh and Harbhajan Singh on death row. Negotiations on with victim's family for compromise. Pardon letter expected by month-end.

VI Case 9209/2009
Victim: Chinna Ganganna Chepuri of Hyderabad
Accused: Two Indians
Last hearing: October 26
Next hearing: November 25

Status: Talvinder Singh and Paramjit Singh on death row. Efforts on to reach victim's family for compromise.

VII Case 4368/2009
Victim: Mohammad Amir of Pakistan

Accused: Two Indians Rajbir Singh and Sana Mohammad Amir (wife of Mohammad Amir)

Status: Rajbir Singh on death row. Sana sentenced to 25 years in prison. Efforts on to get pardon letter from victim's family. Sana also likely to appeal to be able to see her four-year-old son who is with her sister-in-law in Sharjah.