x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Victims describe kidnappers' attacks

More children come forward with charges against the 'Death Row' gang accused of brutality and extortion.

SHARJAH // Fifteen-year-old AM still bears the scars on his face from the beatings. Like many similar victims, he knew his assailants, and their notoriety was growing. He chose not to remain silent. When Sharjah Police finally arrested the five men who dubbed themselves "Death Row", they uncovered a brutal underground of bullying, extortion and abuse. Yet the arrests might not have happened if AM, a pupil at Emirates National School in Dubai, had not been willing to speak out.

Recounting his ordeal from his home in Sharjah, the boy said he had been targeted as he was returning from private tuition classes. "One guy behind the Joy Alukkas building in Rolla called me on my mobile in the evening and said he wanted to show me something. Then two more joined him and started demanding money from me as they slapped and kicked me," he said. "They said they would not accept anything less than Dh300 and I had only Dh100. They took the money and my phone. We had often met this guy at one of the buildings of my close friend and classmate; I knew he stayed there and my friend really knew him well."

The men in custody, aged between 20 and 25, are two Pakistanis and three stateless residents who grabbed children as young as 12 from wealthy Indian families in Sharjah for brief periods and abused them before demanding money under threat of further violence, the police said. They pounced on pupils on Sharjah's streets, kicking and slapping them before taking their money and plundering their mobile phones for the contact details of other rich classmates.

In the most violent incidents, the gang kidnapped at least five schoolchildren and filmed them being abused, in one instance burning a victim with cigarettes, before letting them go. The videos were then posted on the internet. Unlike many of the gang's other victims, who were cowed into silence, AM told his parents, who cancelled his private classes and reported the matter to Sharjah Police. AM's mother said she wanted the two foreigners deported if they were found guilty at trial.

"We can't compromise anything to do with the safety of our children," she said. "This country has a reputation of safety and such gangs have no place here." The publicity surrounding the arrests has prompted more victims and their families to come forward with information that could help put the men behind bars, the police said. Police have now set up a special hotline to collect further evidence on the gang and similar crimes. Police believe the gang's campaign of extortion may have lasted for several months. After first admitting to kidnapping pupils and extorting money from them, the men denied the charges when they were transferred to the Sharjah Public Prosecution, a senior police official said.

It was the culture of all criminals first to confess and later to play on the law of "innocent until proven guilty" when they go to Public Prosecution by asserting that the confession was forced, he said. "But the good thing is that more families are now coming out with concrete evidence of children testifying that the pictures of the accused, published in papers from Sharjah Police, were the same people that beat them up and that would help the Public Prosecution." Another victim, SH, 14, who said he was beaten up twice but had not gone to police, said he was now considering coming forward with his experiences. He had not gone to the police, he said, because he was not confident of being able to describe the incident in Arabic.

"At first I kept it to myself," the boy said, "but when they beat me the second time I told my parents who advised that I should change the direction I am using for the tuition. "I couldn't easily identify them and feared going through the usual police bureaucracy. I just wanted it to end easily by dodging the beaters." Schools in Sharjah said they were aware of the threat to pupils but insisted that the primary responsibility for children's safety lay with the parents. "We can help by offering counselling, but they are the responsibility of their parents first, and of schools second," said Abraham Matthew, vice principal at Emirates National School.

Many of the victims said they remained fearful of gang members on Sharjah streets. "I feel more relaxed now that they have been arrested but we know they have more friends who have not been arrested, or brothers and cousins," said a pupil who said he was attacked near Rolla Square. Put off by his cheap mobile phone, the gang members demanded that he reveal the identities of the rich boys in his school. Several of those who attacked him were not among the five people who had been arrested, he said. "They really scared me," the boy added. "They said they had so many contacts with the police that if I reported them they would get out very quickly and come for me. People are still scared of them here." Sharjah Police have asked anyone with information on the gang to call their hotline at 06 548 7000. ykakande@thenational.ae tspender@thenational.ae