x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Revealed: the dark secrets of Room 1504

Court papers reveal how women were lured from Russia by the promise of lucrative jobs, then forced to work as prostitutes.

ABU DHABI // George Ibrahim, the general manager of the Sahara Hotel Apartments on Electra Street, had no idea what was going on inside room 1504. Nor did Albert Matta, the owner. "I have more than 1,000 flats in Abu Dhabi," says Mr Matta. "I did not know what was happening."

The room was part of the seedy underbelly of Abu Dhabi. It was the centre of a human trafficking ring; a brothel where dozens of women were forced to work as prostitutes. The room was registered by AA, a 31-year-old Egyptian man found guilty at Abu Dhabi's Criminal Court of First Instance last month of running a brothel. In this, he was aided by three women, two of whom, a mother and daughter identified in court papers released yesterday as DT and ND, would travel to their native Russia in search of young women to exploit.

The new recruits would be promised jobs and prosperity in Abu Dhabi. When they arrived, the pair would confiscate their passports. The girls would then be passed on to an Uzbek woman, LB, who would tell them that she had purchased them and they would have to sell sex to escape the debt. Their needs would be looked after by AA; he was also the man who took the money paid by their clients, passing some of it back to LB.

It is not known how many girls suffered this fate, but when police searched DT's flat they found 14 different passports, all of them believed to belong to women the Russians had recruited. All three women were found guilty of running a prostitution ring and, like AA, sentenced to three years followed by deportation. AA and DT have appealed; ND and LB were sentenced in absentia. They remain on the run and are believed to have fled the country.

While it is unclear in the court documents how the operation was initially exposed, two key witnesses in the trial were also victims who came forward with the details. They are currently taking refuge in a shelter in Abu Dhabi. VP, 21, from Russia, told the court she met DT in her home country, where she was told of job opportunities in the UAE. After arriving in August 2008, she met LB, who said she had bought VP for Dh40,000 (US$10,900). The only way to pay this off, the woman told VP, would be to work as a prostitute.

The victim, said LB, threatened her family, claiming that she had friends in the Russian intelligence services. A forensic examination revealed that VP was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease, which she may have passed on to her clients. While the three accused women were intoxicated, VP fled the brothel. She later met a friend who drove her to an Orthodox church. The second victim, JS, testified that she was lured into the UAE on the promise of a job as a waitress.

When she arrived, she was told that she, too, had been bought, this time for Dh45,000, and that she, too, would have to work as a prostitute to pay it off. She said her family was threatened if she did not comply. When the police arrived at room 1504, JS opened the door - a fact that the court took as evidence that she could have escaped earlier if she had wanted. It ruled that both victims had willingly worked as prostitutes in the Sahara Hotel Apartments, as well as at flats in Sharjah and elsewhere in Abu Dhabi. The court also found no evidence that the threat to the women's families had been genuine.

Mr Matta, meanwhile, now says he will keep a closer eye on what goes on in his hotels. "All that I care about now is that my management was not apart of it," he said. "We are supervising the guests more so than before. We sent out memos asking all the staff to be more vigilant with who goes in and out. We are taking greater measures with 24-hour surveillance." Mr Ibrahim, meanwhile, suffered the indignity of arrest and trial, spending 57 days in prison before being acquitted because of lack of evidence.

He remains philosophical about the episode, however. "I lost these days from my life," he said, "but now I am back with my family and happy to move on." @Email:myoussef@thenational.ae kshaheen@thenational.ae