Sub Inspector Raju Mathew, who surrendered before the police on Thursday, has been accused of helping a woman from Thiruvananthapuram fly to Dubai under Sunita’s passport while he was stationed at Nedumbassery airport. He was allegedly part of Sojan’s operations.

When Sunita (name changed) got married at 17, she was hoping for a life away from the pain and drudgery of her childhood. All she got was poverty and betrayal, which led her into the clutches of Lissy Sojan – the alleged kingpin of a prostitution racket operating in the UAE for at least 13 years.

Sunita first met Sojan at Sharjah airport in August 2011. Sojan was there to receive her with a man named Sethulal, who she introduced to Sunita as her husband. Sunita was to work as a maid at Sojan’s flat in Sharjah. The job had been arranged by a woman named Bindu, an acquaintance of Sunita from her hometown, Kattappana. “Bindu had a five-year-old daughter. She used to go to the same Anganwadi where I took my youngest child. That’s how I met her,” says Sunita. The two became friendly over time and Sunita told Bindu how she had been left to fend for her three little children after her husband left her. Struggling to take care of them with her job as a salesgirl, Sunita grabbed the opportunity when Bindu offered her a maid’s job with a Malayali family in Sharjah. She would be away from her children, but the money was good and her mother had agreed to take the children in if she sent money. Bindu put her on a plane from Thiruvananthapuram to Delhi, where Sojan’s acquaintance was waiting to take her to Sharjah.

Everything seemed alright at first in the strange city. She stayed inside the couple’s flat and kept the place clean. Two days after she arrived, Sojan sent her in a car with her driver to get groceries and supplies. Instead, she was taken to a flat with several other women of various ages. The flat was the centre of Sojan’s operations. All the women who worked for her as prostitutes – willingly and by coercion – were housed there. “Lissy Sojan told me how things stood. They had my passport and they had goons who guarded the flat at all times. I was trapped. I couldn’t even call home to tell my family what happened,” she says.

When Sunita resisted, she was locked up and starved. Later, Sojan began to send in her clients. Already weak and hungry, Sunita was raped repeatedly. She was forced to have sex with as many as 40 men every day. “We were constantly kept hungry. The watchmen sometimes showed us some kindness and brought us food. But even that was stale,” she says. The women often fell ill due to the extreme stress of their situation. But they could not be taken to hospitals where their identification papers would be asked. “If we fell very ill, we would be taken to a small clinic. Otherwise we would simply be locked up till we got better,” she says.

Knife for mother

Sunita recounts the story of a 19-year-old Malayali girl who was pregnant when Sunita was still in the UAE. “She didn’t see a doctor even once during her pregnancy. Because I had children, I used to take care of her when I could,” she says. When it was time for her to deliver the baby, she was taken to another isolated flat and left there with the driver. “The driver was only around 25-years-old. Sojan left them there so that even if they were found, only the two of them would be arrested.” The baby was ultimately delivered by the driver, using nothing other than a small knife he had on him.

Flats, thugs and women

Over time, Sunita learnt how Sojan operated. Sojan, also known as Leena Basheer and Aswathy, had multiple flats in Ajman, Dubai and other places in the UAE, all rented under different names. One flat was where the women were all housed. No men were allowed in and it was guarded round the clock. The other apartments were used as hideouts and brothels. According to the police, Sojan had been operating in the UAE for at least 16 years. “She had been a prostitute herself for the first six years. Then she started this racket,” says a police officer. Sethulal, the man who Sojan introduced as her husband to Sunita, is believed to own a liquor business in the UAE. The two reportedly operate the racket with the help of Malayali thugs and agents, stationed in Kerala and the UAE.

A network of women agents in different parts of Kerala would lure women into the racket promising them lucrative jobs in Dubai. They would be flown in from Nedumbassery, Bangalore or Delhi using real or forged passports.

“Sojan has contacts among airport and emigration officials, police, and even in the Indian Consulate here. Nobody gets out of here without Sojan knowing about it,” she says. Sub Inspector Raju Mathew, who surrendered before the police on Thursday, has been accused of helping a woman from Thiruvananthapuram fly to Dubai under Sunita’s passport while he was stationed at Nedumbassery airport. He was allegedly part of Sojan’s operations.

A failed attempt

Sunita found out about Sojan’s connections the hard way. Though she had gone to Sharjah on a three months’ visa, Sojan had detained her there for eight months. During this time, Sunita continued to protest. “Eventually I asked her for money. I thought, ‘I’m being forced into this sex trade anyway. At least let me feed my children.’ But she refused to give me anything,” she says. After eight months, a Malayali customer offered to help her get out. She got as far as the airport, but was detained there by emigration officials as she had no passport.

“I called Lissy and begged her to give me my passport. She said she would give it up if I gave her 10,000 Dirhams. Where did I have that kind of money?” With no money, no ticket and no passport, Sunita spent 29 days in detention.

“That place was like a women’s shelter. Women from India, Sri Lanka and Philippines were all there. But the Filipino women were rescued after 10 days by their Embassy. No one from the Indian Embassy came to meet me.” Sunita was sent back to India by Dubai emigration office after a while

Family throws her out

When she got back, her mother threw her out and her estranged husband accused her of trying to sell their child to the prostitution racket. Today, at 29 years of age, Sunita is living under the protection of a family that gave her shelter out of kindness. She is afraid that she will lose custody of her children. “Even if I get them, how will I take care of them? Lissy and her agents have threatened me many times after I came back. I have studied only till Class X and I can’t get a job.”

Living the life of a victim for almost a year now, Sunita has also lost faith in the police. “Lissy had come to Bangalore a few months ago for her daughter’s wedding. The police didn’t do anything though I had informed them beforehand. Lissy and her thugs are very powerful. What can one person do?” she says, resigned to her fate.

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