Friday, 30 August 2013

Gulf Guillotine

“The police knew, the judges knew, the officers in jail knew and so did the General Manager of Al Mansoor, who had lodged the complaint agaist him, that Krishna Poojari had not stolen the money…. Yet Poojari suffered the sentence.  All said the same thing,’ Both the thieves were Indians, and you are an Indian…’.  So, being an Indian was his crime?”

“For the past two years, I have no news from my husband who left for the Gulf. He is now in jail”, she said between tears.  She was very lean and emaciated.  She cried hysterically and had no strength to speak.

“On what charges?”, asked Dr Ravindranath Shanbhag.

“That’s why I am here. I have no idea. Neither does he know what crime he committed. Can you please find out? ” She pleaded.

Besides the information that Krishna Poojari was in a jail in Saudi Arabia, she was in the dark. On what charges was he sentenced?  Was there a trial? Since when was he had been in the prison? She had no answers to any of the questions

Krishna Poojari hails from Kodi village of Kundapur Taluk.  He was too poor to receive college education. Though hard working by nature, he did not get a job in his village. Hence, like many other unemployed youngsters of Dakshina Kannada, even he proceeded to Bombay in search of a job.

He got himself a job in a travel agency on the Lamington road but the salary was too low to meet even his personal needs, let alone saving it. Even after two years of toil, he could not save enough to send money to his wife and children at home.

Many youngsters were flying to Gulf with the help of the travel agency where Krishna was working. Besides educated people like doctors and engineers, people with limited qualifications also found jobs as attendants, salesmen, etc. Krishna Poojari began to nurse ambitions of overseas employment. He got himself a passport.

Poojari goes to Gulf

He applied for a storekeeper’s job at the Al Mansoor Pharmacy, Al Khobar in Saudi Arabia, which offered him a salary of 700 Saudi Riyals. He paid Rs.20, 000/- to the travel agency in exchange for a visa.  Krishna Poojari flew to Gulf in March 1989.

Mr.Pujari proved himself honest and sincere at work. Having started in one of the branches of the establishment M/s  Al Saleh Mansoor Trading Company, he was soon promoted to be the in charge of all three branches.  He was responsible for issuing goods to all the five Pharmacies and three Supermarkets run by the company. Among his colleagues were three sales representatives.

He was expected to keep an account of all the goods purchased or issued from the store. General Manager Mr.Abdul Khader’s permission was required for all such transactions.  Mr. Pujari always looked for his boss’s signature before carrying out any transaction.

Mr. Abdul Majid, an Indian from Nagore, Tamil Nadu was the senior most among the sales representatives. Since Mr. Majid had to travel to far off places constantly for transporting goods, he found it difficult to get a signed sanction from the General Manager. Mr. Majid was therefore permitted to receive goods worth 80,000 Riyals without prior consent from the General Manager.  However, on Majid’s return, Pujary got the orders  immediately ratified by the GM.  This was the practice.

The sales representatives used to remit the sales proceeds to Mr. Pillai the accountant who issued a receipt. Mr. Pillai too was from India. Mr. Pujari never had the need to handle cash.

This continued for about eight years without any difficulty. Accounts were audited every week.  There were no complaints of any kind against Pujari’s sevice till December 1996.

Abdul Majid missing!

In January  1997,  Abdul Majid who had left the town with the goods from the go-down, never returned and, the unsold goods, if any were not returned.  When the Manager was notified about this, he said “Abdul Majid must be busy with trading. I take responsibility of the goods taken by him.”

10 days later, when Majid did not turn up, and they saw that 70000 riyal worth goods were taken away by him, the General Manager panicked, as he would be responsible for that amount.

On 25-5-1997, at 9.30 in the morning the General Manager went to Krishna Poojari,  asked him to stop his work and immediately go with him.  The manager took Poojari to the police station, and spoke to the Inspector in Arabic, none of which did Poojari understand.  The manager went away,  leaving Poojari there.

Poojari waited there for two hours.  The police did not speak to him or give any explanation.  Then one of them asked Poojari for his identity card.  But as soon as Poojari showed him his card, he was hand-cuffed and put behind the bars.  Poojari was in shock.  He did not understand why they were treating him that way.  His questions remained unanswered.

A bolt from the blue

A week later, the inspector approached him, “Tell me the truth!  What have you done with the company’s 70000 riyal?  Where have you sent it?  Speak up! Or you will be left here to die!”, he thundered.

“I am the store keeper. I don’t handle the money.  My duty is only to provide goods to those who bring the indent.  Only the accountant or cashier, deal with the money.  I have all the records of my dealings with the General Ganager’s signature.” Poojari explained.

“I don’t care!  The manager has lodged a complaint against you saying goods worth about 70000 riyal were taken away by some people from your country.  He says you are responsible for all those things.  I am warning you!  If you don’t return the money, we will kill you.” The Inspector threatened Poojari.

“All me dealings are legal and noted in the records.  Please take me to the office at once. I will show you all the records.  If you still feel I have wronged, I am ready to suffer any punishment.” said Poojari firmly.

The inspector seemed convinced.  The next day he called for the General Manager and asked him to take himself and Poojari to the go-down.

The General Manager refused.  He said that the salesman Abdul Majid and accountant Pillai had both escaped leaving the company’s vehicle in Jeddah airport.  On hearing this, the police beat up Poojari and then asked him to sign some letter which was entirely written in Arabic.  They beat him black and blue and again locked him up.

The next day,on  3-6-1997   8 a.m. in the morning,  Poojari was taken to court.  Poojari hopefully, explained his problem to the court and requested to be taken to his office, so that he could get a chance to prove his innocence by presenting his records.

The General Manager who was present immediately said, “Two Indians, namely Abdul Majid and Pillai have cheated the company.  Since that money cannot be recovered, I request the judge to claim the same from another Indian, Krishna Poojari, who works there.  Though judge and the manager conversed in Arabic,  Poojari soon made out what they were talking and was puzzled at the injustice done.  Just because the people who had escaped with the money were Indians Krishna Poojari was made the scape-goat!

When hell broke loose

When the judge asked Krishna Poojari to sign a letter confessing that he was responsible for the loss suffered by the company, Poojari refused.  He was ordered to be taken away and be beaten up till he signed the letter.  But he did not sign and they beat him unconscious.

When he regained conscious at night he found himself tied to a cot.  They asked him again to sign the letter.  But he did not.  They stuffed cotton in his mouth and gave him shock treatment until he lost his consciousness again.

He was taken to judicial custody.  After 40 days of imprisonment, Poojari was presented before court.  The judge was new.  Poojari requested to be given a chance to prove himself and explained his tale.  The judge said, “I agree, the sales representative and the accountant may have stolen the money.  But it was your responsibility to notify the general manager of the matter.”  Saying so, he sentenced Poojari 8 months of imprisonment and 320 lashes!

When Poojari wanted to appeal to higher courts against the verdict, the judge asked him to sign in some court registers and records.  Since it was all written in Arabic, Poojari did not sign.  As a result, he had to suffer his sentence.

The forsaken family!

When Krishna Poojari’s father, Soora Poojari came to know of his son’s state, he was completely distressed.  Never recovering from the shock, he passed away on 25-4-1998.  Krishna Poojari’s wife Baby was left helpless.  She did not dare to inform her husband of his father’s death, fearing whether  he would be in a state to face the tragedy.

Mrs Baby Poojari approached the Consumers Forum, Basrur, in December 1999.  The forum looked through the various documents she brought with her.  She had already written to the Al Mansoor Company and the Governor of Dammam requesting them to help free her husband.  Her letters to the Indian Embassy at Riyadh had not been answered.

Consumers’ Forum Basrur contacted friends in the Gulf and gathered some information regarding Poojari’s case.  They found that Poojari was housed in cell no: 5 of the Sijjan al Amma Jail in Al Khobar. He had been in custody for two years.

On 6-6-2000, Consumers’ Forum Basrur wrote to the Indian Embassy at Riyadh and requested for all details. They stated that Poojari’s wife has a right to know about his whereabouts and the charges levelled against him.

Embassy wakes up!

The officials of Indian Embassy, who had not responded to any of Baby Poojari’s letters, now replied to her assuring that they have requested the Saudi government to give Krishna Poojari’s details.

That goes to show that the Indian Embassy knew nothing about it for all these two long years!

The Forum instantly wrote to the Al Khobar jail and asked them what were  the charges  leveled against Poojari,   at what stage the trial had reached, and also asked them to furnish a copy of the judgement.

Consumers’  Forum Basrur finally managed to obtain a copy of the judgement on 25-4-98.    According to the verdict, Poojari was to be imprisoned for a period of 8 months.  But Poojari was already in jail for more than THREE YEARS!   The Forum activists informed the Indian Embassy of this strange anomaly and asked them to seek an explanation.

The Human Rights Protection Foundation, Udupi wrote to the Governor of Dammam and pointed out this blatant injustice.  The foundation also cautioned them about mobilizing world wide public opinion about this  if Poojari was not released immediately.  The Governor, in turn, wrote to the jail authorities. 

Meanwhile, Poojari  was on hunger strike in jail.  Abdul Rayid, the jailer of Al Khobar had developed a soft corner for Poojari.  He was certain that Poojari was innocent.

On receiving a letter from the Governor, the jail authorities went to the General Manager of Al Mansoor Company and asked him to withdraw the case against Poojari.  The very next day the manager withdrew his complaint.

The same day, on 5-2-2001, the jailer arranged for Krishna Poojari’s return to India.  When Krishna Poojari arrived in Bombay, he contacted our Forum by phone. 

“Sir, nobody should suffer like me. We must mobilize public opinion against such atrocities. I shall never again go abroad even if I have to starve.”

(translated from 'Bahujana Hitaaya, Bahujana Sukhaya' by Dr Ravindranath Shanbhag)

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