Liberia: In A Whatsapp Group Trafficked Women in Oman Plead for Help; Suspect Flees
In part two of this three-part investigation Front Page Africa and New Narratives look at efforts to repatriate women trafficked to Oman and efforts to bring traffickers to justice.
Monrovia – After a harrowing six months in Oman Sarah and Kolu, victims of human trafficking, returned home in early March. Their families were vexed with them for keeping silent about their plans to take up a “dream” job offer in Oman. They were in debt for the money they had raised to get there. They were traumatized and in poor health from months of hard work, starvation, and beatings.
By: Anthony Stephens with New Narratives
The women, whose names FPA/NN is withholding for their security, agreed to appear in a government press conference to talk about their ordeal. They hoped, at least, other girls would know the truth and not fall prey to trafficker’s promises of well-paying jobs and educations, as they had.
Sarah alleges Monrovia-based Forestry Training Institute’s employee Cephas Selebay deceived her, demanding $US350 for her passport and visa and lying about what was in store for her in Oman. Kolu claims she paid Selebay $US450.
“It was never true. It destroyed my life,” says Sarah. She does not want other women to “be fooled.”
But despite all their efforts to warn others Sarah and Kolu knew women were still being trafficked to Oman. They knew because new women kept popping up in a WhatsApp group the women had formed to share their experiences and advice.
Today the WhatsApp group is still filled with more than 180 accounts. Most women share voice recordings telling tales of horror, heartbreak, and desperation.
More than 125 women have been returned from Oman with help from an international group of heroes including a woman in Oman, a Canadian anti-trafficking advocate and the Liberian Consul General in Dubai.
There are still dozens of women on the WhatsApp group who say they are in Oman. Liberian authorities have sent a formal request asking Omani authorities to confirm their identities. But they have yet to receive a response. “So, I can’t say here that we know the accurate number of girls that are in Oman,” says Adolphus Satiah, Director of the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit at the Labor Ministry.
In August during a joint meeting between Omani and Liberian authorities, the Oman government agreed to halt issuing visas to Liberians. The move will likely dramatically reduce the number of Liberian women recruited to Oman. But the demand is great warns Ward Reddick, the Canadian who has helped coordinate the return of many of the women in his work with the Rain Collective. He says people will likely find a way. It’s likely too that Omani recruiters will move on to another vulnerable African country.
According to Reddick the Omani government, sensitive to accusations of human rights abuses, is getting increasingly tough on the hundreds of agencies that operate there. Viral videos of violations of workers in the Middle East have forced many governments to act. Agents and sponsors know they will be punished if they “break the skin” of a victim, he says. They know how to beat victims in a way that will not leave a mark. “These videos are pretty damning evidence,” says Reddick.
We’re hoping that one of these days he will be arrested and brought to justice. But the case is on the docket. It’s like a trap set that it doesn’t forget only the animal can forget. We don’t care how long he will go for. We’re using other international instruments to have him arrested.– Cllr. Wesseh A. Wesseh, Liberia’s Acting Solicitor General
Reddick shares a harrowing Facebook video of a Ugandan domestic servant in a Middle Eastern country being beaten by a child as an example of the sort of video that can land a sponsor in trouble.
“Trafficker-in-Chief” on the run
Meanwhile, Liberian authorities have been trying to prosecute ring leaders on the Liberian end. Cephas Selebay is the linchpin of the Liberian operation according to authorities. In August a Montserrado grand jury indicted him with human trafficking, criminal solicitation, and theft of property. Police say Selebay had the help of accomplices in Liberia who helped with visas, identity documents, passports, and flights.
Selebay is to be one of the first people to face trial under Liberia’s new anti-trafficking law passed in 2021. One of the toughest in the region it will see convicted perpetrators serve a minimum sentence of twenty years. Victims are demanding justice.
“I want him to go to jail for life,” says Sarah. “I want justice. So, when justice is done, I will be happy.”
International trafficking experts have applauded Liberia’s stepped-up efforts in the last year – made necessary by the country’s repeat appearance on the US Trafficking Report’s watchlist of countries deemed not to be taking the issue seriously enough.
But critics say alleged perpetrators like Selebay are “low hanging fruit”. In order to obtain the passports and visas to get the women overseas and help them evade safeguards designed to stop trafficking victims at the airport, they say members of government had to have been involved.
Satiah insists Liberian authorities will pursue everyone involved regardless of position.
“Nobody is above the law,” says Satiah. “So, if for any reason we have seen the big potatoes, why we would want to cover up? We will go after them to ensure that justice is served.”
But for now, even Selebay is out of Liberian law authorities’ reach. Selebay was released in September after Rev. Francis Kollie, a human rights advocate and Selebay’s father-in-law, and Selebay’s sister Christiana Gahndolo, agreed to serve as guarantors that he would appear in court. Selebay promptly fled. Law enforcement believe he has left the country. Judge Roosevelt Wille of Criminal Court A, which was to hear Selebay’s case, ordered Kollie and Gahndolo jailed in Monrovia Central Prison. Both were released in September after falling ill.
A medical examination found them healthy enough to remain in jail but the court has granted a request that they remain free to search for Selebay. Five people are now serving as their guarantors. Authorities seized the passports of Kollie and Ghandolo. Kollie declined our request for an interview saying he was “depressed.” Gahndolo has not responded to our request for an interview.
No clue of Selebay’s whereabouts
Under Liberian law, criminal defendants must be present in the court during trial and cannot be tried “in absentia”. This makes Selebay’s prosecution impossible at this time. The Liberian government says it has no clue on his whereabouts.
“We’re hoping that one of these days he will be arrested and brought to justice,” said Cllr. Wesseh A. Wesseh, Liberia’s Acting Solicitor General. “But the case is on the docket. It’s like a trap set that it doesn’t forget only the animal can forget. We don’t care how long he will go for. We’re using other international instruments to have him arrested.”
In part three of this three-part series FPA/New Narratives will look at how the government’s new anti-human trafficking law will help fight the menace.
This series is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of its Liberia Investigates project. Funding was provided by the US Embassy in Monrovia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.