Lawsuit alleges abuse of camel jockeys

Children kidnapped, forced to race in United Arab Emirates, complaint says

December 25, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

MIAMI -- The rich rulers of the United Arab Emirates might be fans of camel racing, but the sheiks say they don't enslave children as riders for their country's popular sport.

On Friday, they launched a legal and media counteroffensive against a lawsuit filed this fall in Miami federal court that accused them of forcing boys to become jockeys.

Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the UAE prime minister, and his brother, Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum, the emirates' finance minister, sought the dismissal of the proposed class action case and unveiled a Web page, www.dubai cameljockeys.org, to spotlight their campaign against the mistreatment of young jockeys.

Calling the suit "baseless," the brothers said the litigation was unnecessary because the United Arab Emirates had started a partnership last year with the United Nations Children's Fund to find thousands of young camel jockeys, repatriate them to their native countries and compensate them with money, education and health care.

Other countries involved in the program include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and Mauritania. So far, UNICEF has reported repatriating 1,079 camel jockeys. An initial fund of $9 million has been set up to pay the victims, financed by the United Arab Emirates, said a New York-based lawyer representing the Maktoum brothers.

The United Arab Emirates have ended the use of underage jockeys in camel racing and developed a "model solution" with UNICEF for compensating and supporting the victims, said Joseph G. Finnerty III.

The emirates have also passed laws that criminalize the use of children as camel jockeys as well as human trafficking in general.

"They are ahead of the game in taking care of this problem," Finnerty said, arguing that it's a superior solution to costly litigation in Miami.

He said that the emirates and other Persian Gulf countries have found the next generation of camel jockeys: lightweight robots.

Lawyers for the proposed class action lawsuit offer a much darker view of camel jockeying in oil-rich states in the Middle East.

The proposed class action suit claims that boys from 2 to 4 years old were abducted from South Asia and Africa, then sold and enslaved to serve as camel trainers, tenders or jockeys for the wealthy elite in the United Arab Emirates.

More than 10,000 boys might have been victimized in what the suit calls "one of the greatest humanitarian crimes of the last 50 years."

The suit accuses the Maktoum brothers of being "the most active participants" in the slave trade for camel racing.

"The defendants robbed parents of their children and boys of their childhoods, their futures and sometimes their lives, for the craven purposes of entertainment and financial gain," the suit said.

Although the suit seems rather foreign even by Miami standards, the plaintiffs' attorneys say it was filed here, in part, because royal family members of the United Arab Emirates maintain hundreds of horses at farms in Kentucky and Florida - among their billions of dollars in U.S. assets.

The case - filed under an "alien tort" law adopted in 1789 to address injuries during acts of piracy - could have been brought anywhere in the United States.

John Andres Thornton, a Miami Beach lawyer involved in the case, could not be reached for comment Friday.

The lead law firm, South Carolina-based Motley Rice, also could not be reached.

The Maktoum brothers argue that the lawsuit should not go forward because it would interfere with "ongoing diplomatic efforts" by the United Arab Emirates to end the use of child camel jockeys.

The brothers also say that they are entitled to immunity as heads of state. Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum is vice president of the emirates and the ruler of Dubai.

They also seek dismissal because of inconvenience, saying that the emirates provide an "adequate, alternative forum."

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