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Nepali migrants behind bars in GCC plead for help

Weak investigations and lack of legal representation lead to unfair trials and extended prison terms

On March 20, 2022

For several months, Moti Kumari, 34, from southern Nepal, has dreamed of her husband being released from prison in Saudi Arabia and finally returning home. But when she wakes,  she finds their 9-year-old son silently cuddling only her, alone. “Almost every month, I see him with me,” says Moti. “But it hurts when I realise it was just a dream. I wish it could be a reality.”

Moti’s husband Lal* had been working as a flatbed truck driver with a transport company in Saudi Arabia for about eight years.  The 41-year-old would drive as far as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Kuwait to transport plastic goods.

One day in 2018, while driving back to Saudi from the UAE, Lal was caught at the border with 10 bottles of male enhancement pills. Since then, he has been held at the Al-Ahsa Migrant Detention Centre in Al Hofuf, in Eastern Saudi Arabia. A court  has sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

“I didn’t know carrying these tablets was not allowed here,” says Lal, on a phone call from prison. “I would not have taken those tablets in my truck if I knew it was illegal.”

He explains that a UAE national had given the tablets to another Nepali truck driver who worked for the same company, requesting that he deliver it to someone in Saudi.  And that Nepali driver then put the tablets in his truck.

“I didn’t do anything wrong knowingly please help me,” he implores. “I was duped.”

He adds that the driver who gave him the tablets returned to Nepal immediately after Lal was detained.

Moti, who has spent only three years of their 15 years of married life with him, has not lost hope they will meet again. But she sometimes fears that day will not come soon.

Lal, trying to console her, tells her, “don’t worry, somebody will hear my plea, and I could even come home early.”

Hundreds of migrant worker families in Nepal are desperately waiting for their loved ones to return, with no knowledge of why they were imprisoned or when they will be released. And in many cases, the prisoners themselves appear unaware of the reasons they are behind bars.

In 2021, a total of 360 Nepali migrant workers were imprisoned across the Gulf, according to data obtained from the Foreign Employment Board (FEB). The highest number of Nepali prisoners are in Saudi Arabia (143), followed by UAE (136), Kuwait (43), Qatar (31), Bahrain (4), and Oman (3).

According to FEB records, Nepali migrant workers have been imprisoned on various charges ranging from drug abuse to alcohol consumption, quarrelling, theft, and homicide. There are also many instances where workers are arrested for other minor offences such as traffic violations, urination on the roadside, or non-compliance with immigration rules.

“[Nepali] workers are not fully aware of the rules and regulations in the Gulf, which are way stricter than ours,” says Tikamani Neupane, director of the Welfare, Rehabilitation and Communication Division at the FEB.

He added that the situation of lower-income workers is especially dire as they are likely to have little or no knowledge about these cultural differences. Language barriers further complicate these situations.

When migrant workers — who are often sole breadwinners of the family – are imprisoned abroad, their families struggle to survive.

With her husband no longer able to send money back home, Moti Kumari, a mother of two, has had to begin working at a local garment shop.

Lal’s wife Moti with her son Nishchal and daughter Sushma.

As a driver, her husband earned about SR3,000 (USD$800) a month, working 84 hours a week. Moti, who never wanted her husband to go abroad, had only agreed because of a loan of NPR 800,000 they had taken out to buy land. She now has no idea how to pay it back.

“He went there for us to have a better future, but the situation has become even worse now,” says Moti. “I don’t know how I can fulfil my children’s needs.”

In the first year of his imprisonment, Lal video-called Moti using a mobile that a Saudi inmate had snuck into the prison. But the guards eventually seized the phone and she has not seen him since. Now she speaks to him for only a few minutes once a week on an audio-only call, but the connection often cuts. Moti often hears other inmates clamouring in the background, waiting their turn to call their families.

Lal is frustrated with the lack of support he’s received from the Nepali government.  “I have seen my fellow prisoners released because their governments helped. Why doesn’t my government help me? I didn’t do anything wrong with intention.”

He added that no one from the embassy has ever visited him in prison to console him, let alone provide legal assistance. Free legal aid, however, is a fundamental right according to Nepal’s constitution.

In Nepal, Lal’s 70-year-old father Gangaram, has been pleading with government officials to intervene. He travelled 180 km from their hometown to the Department of Consular Services and Foreign Employment Board in Kathmandu. He also called to Nepali Embassy in Saudi Arabia. All attempts failed.

The Saudi Embassy did not respond to Migrant-Rights.Org’s inquiries about the case.

After his son’s arrest, Gangaram was terrified that his son would be executed. He was not entirely sure of the ‘crime’ he committed or the laws in Saudi, but he heard that capital punishment exists in the Kingdom and could not reach his son for several weeks. (Saudi Arabia only placed a moratorium on executions for non-violent drug-related crimes in 2020. Prior to this directive, expatriates accused of drug-related crimes accounted for a sizable number of those executed by the Kingdom each year). He received a brief respite when he got a call from Lal in prison, who told him he would be serving a long jail term.

“I am happy because he is at least alive,” says Gangaram. “But being a dad, I feel sorry all the time for not being able to help him, but what can I do from here?”

Gangaram said he would be happy if his son could be transferred to a jail in Nepal because at least he could visit him here.

The United Nations (UN) encourages sentence transfer – a process of transferring prisoners to their home country to serve their prison sentences – stating that the practice may be a more humane way of treating prisoners that also supports the “rehabilitation, re-socialisation and reintegration of the prisoner and thereby protect public safety.”

Nepali human rights activists also say that sentence transfer should be the government’s priority because it improves the lives of both prisoners and their family members. Anurag Devkota, a human rights lawyer who advocates for sentence transfer, says that it could be done if governments in both source and destinations are willing.

“It gives a greater chance for prisoners to reintegrate into society and could lessen the emotional hardships of the families facing after the imprisonment of their loved ones,” he says. “Punishment to the prisoners should be done in a reformative approach, not in a retributive way.”

“As a housemaid, I had to obey my boss’s order. I didn’t know it was the drug”

Eight years in a Kuwaiti jail

Only a few miles away from Lal’s house in Nawalpur, 60-year-old Gopal Darai is also waiting for a loved one to return. Gopal does not know why his wife, Goma, has been jailed in Kuwait for 8 years.

“She went there to earn money because we are poor,” says Gopal. “I keep waiting but don’t know when I can meet her.” Gopal does not believe his wife could commit a crime deserving of prison. Goma, a mother of four, was illiterate and the sole earner of the family.

“She would not have gone there if I could make money here,” Gopal repents. “I always feel bad, but what can I do?”

Goma, now in her mid-40s, went to Kuwait to work as a housemaid in 2013, according to her employment record. Within only a few months of her arrival, she was arrested.

Goma told her children that she was innocent — that her employer had given her a bag of “powder-like-substance” to keep in her room. She was not sure what exactly was in the bag at the time of her arrest. Later, she realised it was brown sugar, a low-quality form of heroin.

“As a housemaid, I had to obey my boss’s order. I didn’t know it was the drug,” Goma told her son, Anil Darai, who is now 21.

Goma told her daughter, Aakriti, that a team from the Nepali embassy in Kuwait recently visited her and other imprisoned Nepalis. But she remains unhappy that the Embassy has not paid attention to her case in these past eight years. “Where have you gone for all those years?”

The embassy declined to speak to MR about Goma, during the organisation to the Department of Consular Services in Nepal, where they have forwarded information about her case.  But as of March 7, 2022, the Consular Department maintains it has not received any details from the embassy.

MR’s attempts to contact Goma were not successful. But according to her daughter, Goma was initially sentenced to 25 years in prison.  Her sentence was later reduced to 8 years, meaning that she should be returning home roughly six months from now.

“It was like a fall-of-a-cliff moment when I first heard about the incident,” says Anil, who learnt about his mother’s detention through social media. “Our family was completely dependent on her. Everything has torn apart since she was put in prison.”

Goma, who had previously worked in Bahrain and at another job in Kuwait, would send NPR 10,000 (USD$80) every month to the family for household expenses.

Once she was imprisoned, Anil dropped out of school and began working as a construction worker in his hometown. He had spent his childhood working as a domestic worker at a police officer’s house in Kathmandu and wanted to enrol in higher secondary school. In a NASA-emblazoned sweatshirt, Anil reflects, “I would have been studying undergrad now if my mom was not arrested. But I could not continue my education because I had to work.”

Gopal and Anil Darai with a photo of their wife and mother, Goma

Goma’s family is disappointed that the Nepali authorities have not provided Goma with any legal aid. Daughter Aakriti says, “She was imprisoned for no apparent cause. But nobody helped to get her out of jail.”

Goma’s family was not aware of the process of filing an appeal with the Nepal government (see sidebar). They also do not know the name of the prison where Goma is being held.

“Oftentimes, families lack information about the imprisoned family members such as passport number, citizenship number, type of employment, name of the companies and places where they worked,” says Dhan Bahadur Oli, director general at the Department of Consular Services. “That makes the rescue effort complicated.”

If a worker or their family does not file the application or is not in a position to do so, the Nepali diplomatic commissions can still take legal immunity and advocacy action, according to the government’s Guidelines on Foreign Workers Legal Immunity 2018.

However, “the guidelines are not implemented,” says Krishna Neupane, secretary-general of the National Network for Safe Migration (NNSM), a coalition of migrant rights activists promoting safer migration. The guidelines allow the Foreign Employment Board to use up to NPR1.5 million for the legal support of documented workers charged with crimes. “Sadly, this has not been done proactively. It’s surprising why the Board hesitates to spend money for workers’ legal assistance,” he says.

In fact, since the guidelines have come into force, the Board has only provided funds for the legal support of four imprisoned workers, according to Tikamani Neupane of the Foreign Employment Board.

The FEB currently has more than NPR 6 billion in its foreign employment welfare fund.

Tikamani is aware that only a tiny portion of the budget has been spent for legal aid of prisoners, but says the Board’s priority is to give money to the families of deceased migrant workers.

“We do not want to give an impression that we are giving money to the criminals or protecting the crime,” says Tikamani. “It’s better to try to minimise Nepali workers’ involvement in criminal activities instead of giving money for hiring a lawyer for them.”

The Board is planning to review the guidelines, as current members do not believe that NPR 1.5 million for the legal support of each prisoner is worth spending.

However, Ramesh Bahadur Shahu, program officer of the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), a Kathmandu-based not-for-profit organisation that runs “blood money campaigns” (financial compensation for victims)  to release prisoners, says government legal support is essential to the prisoners.

Ramesh says their campaign has been able to release three imprisoned migrant workers so far, but says the government must take more responsibility.

“The government has a fund to support the workers; it could support many workers in jails if it wants,” says Ramesh. “The fund was created by the money of workers themselves. The government should not be reluctant to use it for their welfare.”

But even if the government provides legal support to accused workers, it would still not extend any protections for undocumented workers. The guidelines only apply to documented workers charged with a criminal offence whose employment contract has not expired.

Anurag says that the guidelines categorically denies the fundamental rights of undocumented workers. “Undocumented migrant workers have remained as ‘invisible population,’ everyone has a right to have legal assistance under Nepal’s constitution,” he added.

Krishna Neupane of the National Network for Safe Migration says that migrant workers have not been treated fairly despite their immense contribution to the country’s economy. “They are neither given rigorous pre-departure training about the risk of being imprisoned nor provided free legal assistance,” says Krishna. “Many workers would not have to serve jail terms if our government could make them aware of the rules and regulations in destination countries.”

*Names changed 

A Prisoner’s tale

Thaneshwor Bhusal, 41, from the Nawalpur district of southern Nepal, had gone to Saudi Arabia in 2011 to work in construction. Upon arrival, his employer asked him to work as a tipper driver — a truck driver that collects, transports and delivers loads to and from sites.

Since he did not have a driver’s licence, Thaneshwor initially refused. His employer assured him that the process to obtain his licence had begun and that the company would take responsibility in case any issues arose in the meantime. Thaneshor, reluctantly, then agreed to drive.

As he realised the employer was taking no action to organise the licence, he informed his boss that he wanted to return home. But the employer did not let him go. “I was obliged to drive as my boss would threaten to not pay salary or allow me in the accommodation,” says Thaneshor. “I know I was not supposed to drive without a licence, but what could I do since my employer forced me to do so?”

Nine months after arriving in Saudi, his truck collided with two other vehicles. Two people, an Indian and Saudi National, were killed in the accident. The court found him 50% responsible for the incident, and charged him for driving a vehicle without a licence. He was ordered to pay SR150,000 (USD$40,000) as blood money to the victim’s family. The employer who forced him to drive without a licence faced no repercussions.

With no ability to pay, Thaneshor spent four and half years in three different jails — Briman Prison, Dhabhan Central Jail, and Al-Shumaisi Detention  — with many unforgettable memories.

He spent countless nights with only the comfort of his family memories. His blanket was too thin to keep him warm, and in any case infested with bed bugs.

“We would get only one bread for dinner, which was not enough,” recalled Thaneshor. “So, we would save a portion of the rice that we get for lunch and eat that in the evening.”

He also witnessed clear discrimination among the prisoners. “In the jail where most of the prisoners were Saudi nationals, the wardens would treat me better. But they would appear so rude if there were many international prisoners.”

Thaneshor Bhusal at work in Nepal

Thaneshwor sustained internal injuries in the accident, which continued to give him trouble. With pain in his lower back and legs, he cannot lift anything heavy. “I asked jailers so many times to take me to the hospital, but nobody took me to the bigger hospital, only to some clinics,” he recalled. “The police would take you to the hospital if somebody fainted or screamed due to pain. Otherwise, there was no chance.”

While in prison, he lost his grandfather and grandmother. His wife abandoned him, which left him emotionally devastated. But he holds no grudges against her. “How could she stay alone since it was not sure how many years I would have to remain in jail?” he says.

In 2018, he was finally freed, thanks to a PNCC Campaign to raise NPR 4,098,000 (USD$33,000) to pay his “blood money.”

Thaneshwor has now started a tailor shop in his hometown. “I have enough sad memories. Now I want to make my life happier and brighter,” he says, a slight figure in a black jacket, setting a thread in a sewing machine.