By Richard M. Nanua and Royson Willie in Port Vila
Vanuatu’s Magistrates Court has remanded a Bangladeshi couple over what is alleged to be the biggest human trafficking and slavery case in Vanuatu and the region.
Sekdah Somon and Buxoo Nabilah Bibi – the owners of the “Mr Price” home and furniture store in Vanuatu – were arrested and charged with 12 counts of human trafficking.
Somon and Bibi are also facing 12 counts each of slavery, contrary to section 102 (a) and 11 additional counts of money laundering against section 11 (3) (a) of the Penal Code.
The Vanuatu Daily Post was reliably informed that between September 21, 2018 and November 2018 Somon and Bibi allegedly brought in 12 people from Bangladesh illegally to find jobs in Vanuatu.
Reliable sources confirmed that complainants have filed complaints within the Vanuatu Police Force (VPF) and the proceedings commenced after the arrest of the accused in Port Vila.
They said 92 people had been allegedly illegally brought to Vanuatu by the couple and their cases are yet to be dealt with and brought before the court.
The Daily Post was also informed the couple were from Bangladesh but the husband had a Zimbabwe passport while his wife was using a Mauritius passport.
The couple were denied bail in the Magistrates Court on Wednesday amid concerns the couple may have other passports in their possession that made them a possible flight risk as they are originally from one country but evidence indicated they are using passports from different countries.
The Magistrates Court said that any bail should be obtained at the higher court after considering the seriousness of the offending is of public importance.
The couple were rejected bail because they might interfere with the witnesses.
The victims were placed in various locations in Port Vila.
Sources confirmed while the case was still under investigation there might also be some breaches in Vanuatu immigration laws, labour laws and Vanuatu Financial Service Commission (VFSC) laws.
They said it was likely that more people would be charged depending on the findings of the investigation.
The Daily Post was told the couple allegedly arranged and facilitated their entry in Vanuatu using deception, denial of their freedom of movement, coercion or threat of violence exploited and placed them in servitude.
They said after the 12 Bangladeshi workers came to Vanuatu, the couple allegedly subjected them to slavery by engaging them in work under oppressive terms and conditions, under menace of penalty and without freedom to leave at any time.
There were allegations these workers were promised good money for jobs in Vanuatu but they have to pay them some money in return for the offer.
The sources said that some of them allegedly paid $US2000 to the couple, some paid $US3900, $US4000, $US5000, $US6000 and $US8000.
They said the couple were alleged to have directly and indirectly made arrangements that involved property that they knew or ought to have known to be proceeds of crime when they procured those amounts from the victims.
The Minister of Internal Affairs, Andrew Napuat, has confirmed the arrest of the investor behind “Mr Price” in relation to alleged money laundering and human trafficking.
While the couple are known as owners of Mr Price, sources said the investigation was still underway to check whether or not the company had a link with the global Mr Price.
This is not the first time that Mr Price Asian Junction has been in the spotlight in Vanuatu as in June this year 21 work permits were revoked for workers brought in from overseas by the company.
Buzz 96FM interview
“We didn’t want to come out in the media to talk about the case because of the sensitivity of it,” Minister Napuat told Buzz 96FM’s Kizzy Kalsakau.
“But since people are already talking about, I felt that it’s good that we come out and provide initial clarifications.”
After the revocation of work permits, the investors appealed to the minister and the revocations were reversed but with conditions to employ ni-Vanuatu and for imported workers to do work they came to do.
The minister said the investigation would take a while.
He said appropriate authorities such as the Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority (VIPA) and Customs Department and Ministry of Finance that are responsible for business licenses will have to be consulted.
Napuat said those brought to work under Mr Price would be treated as witnesses in the case against the investor behind Mr Price.
He denied rumours that people were brought in from overseas in containers.
Minister Napuat is appealing for members of the public not to spread false information about the issue.
Meanwhile, Acting CEO of Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority Kalpen Silas said due diligence was carried out before Mr Price’s application was forwarded to the VIPA board for approval.
However, Silas said one of the requirements under the VIPA Act was that any investor who breaks any Vanuatu law through provision of false information would be penalised.
He said VIPA was aware of investigations currently being carried out on Mr Price.
The case is expected to resume within two weeks.
Human trafficking has been defined as the action or practice of illegally transporting people from one country or area to another, typically for the purposes of forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation.
The maximum penalty for this in Vanuatu as set out in section 102 (b) of the Penal Code Act [CAP 135] is 20 years behind bars.
This article is republished from the Vanuatu Daily Post with permission.