Sunday, August 29, 2004

An agonising month

I’ve done their CVs. Got them groceries and even bought anti-biotics for Jane, one of the victims of this prostitution racket at the Pharmacy next to the Union Cooperative Society, on Trade Centre Road, in Dubai's Karama Area.

The only thing I asked from Jane is to pray for our pharmacy business which we’re starting with my brother in the Philippines.

Just a few minutes ago, I sent this SMS to my boss: “Uztaz, I have on tape just today 1 Filipino guy, Gener, ex-embassy staff now working for Al Wasl Travel accusing Gulf News of offering the prostitution victims money so they would give us the story. That’s a grave lie.

This Gener is making money from the girls and has solved complaints n d past by simply jst sending numerous other victims home. I’m playing tape in my car. Name of 1 victim is Loida, 8702605.”

Earlier this afternoon, I got a call from Lt Ahmed, a young cop with the investigation team of Dubai Police, asking me to show up at their office at either 10am or 11am tomorrow, August 30.

As to the exact time, I am not sure.

Neither am I sure as to exact reason for the "invitation".

I presume it has something to do with the prostitution case I asked them to solve and wrote about.

Anyway, I told my boss, Duraid (UAE News Editor), about the invite. Initially he said: “Don’t go. If the police want any of our journalists for a story, their chief must first write our Editor-in-Chief.

It was Duraid, with blessings from the EIC, Abdul Hamid, a funny man and veteran Emirati journalist, who asked me to write the story.

“But Brig. Khamis Mattar Muzheina asked me not to write about it, because it’s bad for the image of Dubai,” I protested.

End of conversation.

"Write it anyway," said Duraid. He and the EIC probably believed Dubai’s heart is big enough to embrace this kind of reality.

I hope they are right. Because right now, at about 1.25am, I still haven’t got the foggiest as to why I’m being called by the inner sanctum of the Police intelligence unit here.

Of course I must face this once-in-a-lifetime challenge.

Courage does not mean the absence of fear, but going for it even if one does not know what lies ahead.

I must be ready to say my truth. And I will.

I always believed my truth would be safe and secure in Dubai.

Its justice system is fair.

If the Western justice system is out to establish the truth and the American justice system seeks to establish guilt, I think the UAE’s jusctice system, Dubai in particular, seeks to treat the guilty party with utmost lenience.

Petty criminals here are treated with kid gloves, though it’s a different story when it comes to convicted drug peddlers and rapists -- or other hardened criminals.

I think the courts would act responsibly and with utmost care.

Anyway, Anna Marie Balderama (a 17 year old who used her sister Antonette’s passport), one of the girls whom I’ve accompanied to the police (after a friend told me about their situation some days ago), reversed her statement.

I suspect she was coached by her handlers, Venus and Cherry. I suspect a certain “Kuya Boyet” and Gener also fed her tall tales to get back at me and Gulf News.

She accused me, among other things, of verbally threatening her, that one of the girls is my girlfriend, that Gulf News offered them jobs and payment if they’d complain.

All these claims, of course, preposterous and would not hold any water in any forum.

I was caught in this web of lies by accident. Before this interesting journey started, I was reluctant to help the girls.

It was during the third week of July 2004 when I learned about the problem of the runaway prostitution victims from Larry, a man who has also fed me information for a story on illegal recruitment victims.

Their house in Deira has been turned into a virtual refugee house for people of this sort. Dunno how they really bump into them.

The girls said their two “Mama Sangs” (Tagalog for pimp), Venus (aka Hayat/Judilyn Cabantog) and Cherry have been threatening to tip off the police that they’ve ran away.

Marissa, one of the victims who arrived on July 20, escaped two days later from the flat at 6am, even before she was actually pimped away to the regular customers of Venus and Cherry in Abu Dhabi.

After her escape, Venus has repeatedly told Loida, Rhia, Jane -- and the other girls who were still not sent home then (including Jeanna and Marichu) -- that she (Venues) already filed a police report about the escape of Marissa.

Before we complained to the police, the girls were alternately crying and laughing. I wanted to test their resolve... I wanted them to be sure of themselves, that I was not dealing with a big BS just to help them get out of a rut.

Earlier, the girls told me they were also introduced to Cherry’s boyfriend whom they claimed was an agent of the CID. So the girls were terrified. If it were true, then we're dealing here with a mafia involving some cops.

We'll be banging our heads against the wall. They simply didn’t know what to do. Neither did I.

They pestered me with calls. Constantly asking for help.
I tried to ignore them initially because I didn't want to get involved.

But what the heck. Larry, whom I’ve worked with in a previous case, gave my mobile number to these girls.

The Mama Sangs had been asking the girls to join them to shift their “business” to Abu Dhabi since there had been reported raids in prostitution dens in Dubai.

The girls didn’t want to go with the pimps. But they were afraid of them. They were promised work as waitresses in Dubai.

They held on to that promise... and gave placement fees.

This was the time when I mentioned the problem to my editor again.

I asked for help from Mona Ahmed (+971 50 8550606), an Emirati female colleague who has been generating scoops in the health beat, to talk to the Mama Sangs, since I didn’t really want to get myself involved.

I asked Mona to ask the Mama Sangs to leave the girls alone.

Mona apparently had direct contacts with Brig. Muzheina.

After I told her and Duraid about he situation, she rang up the general. It was during that conversation when the general told her tales about people passing themselves off as CID operatives to make money from illegal alcohol vendors or ordinary people who are gullible enough to fall victim to these hat tricks.

Brig. Muzheina told Mona about two men who had been exotorting Dh500 per week from an underground alcohol trading in one rickety apartment in Deira. It turned out the “CID” men were overstaying Iranians – who were deported together with the enterprising Indian trader.

When Mona told me this story, I was still apprehensive.

But the general said the victims have "nothing to fear".

The next thing I knew, Mona was telling me to accompany the victims to the general’s office before 9am the following Saturday (Friday is a weekend in the UAE, like in most Muslim countries) and look for another Mona, Muzheina’s secretary who was the classmate of Gulf News’ Mona Ahmed.

Naturally, I had to give the victims company. But I had no intention to write the story.

All these happened with the knowledge of Consul General Generoso Calonge, the charge d’affaires at the Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi (Amb. Libran Cabactulan was on sick leave after a mild stroke) and Vic Cabe, the Labour Attache in Dubai.

Duraid, when he learned CID had called me for questioning over something, he asked for the officer’s number and rang him up. He told the Lt. Ahmad the procedure is for the Police Chief to first a letter to our Editor in Chief.

I don’t know why Lt Ahmad gave me another missed call yesterday aftertoon.

I also have competitors who can weave dirty stories about Gulf News. But that’s competition for you.

Hope something good happens tomorrow. I think that something interesting is about to happen to my journalistic career before I push 34. Ah, but journalists take their professional glory when get in trouble.

I’m bringing a paperback of Black Hawk Down, just in case the cops ask me to stay for a day or a couple of days. Staying in jail for a while would be a break from the daily deadlines, which is more torturous somehow.


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