The deputy leader of the Arab emirate of Dubai has become the subject of a class-action lawsuit in Kentucky that accuses him of encouraging the enslavement of thousands of boys for use as jockeys in camel races in the Middle East.
If the suit is heard against Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who is also the finance and industry minister of the United Arab Emirates, it has the makings of an embarrassing international incident. The Emirates is a key American ally and hosts more U.S. Navy ships than any other country.
When a similar case was brought in Florida in July, the State Department moved to intervene after the deputy ruler of the United Arab Emirates and leader of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who also was named in the suit, made a personal appeal to President Bush. The State Department took no action because the case was thrown out on jurisdictional grounds.
The suit has now been refiled in Kentucky, where Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum has extensive horseracing interests, including livestock and stables.
The sheik has denied any wrongdoing.
In documents filed on September 11 by Elizabeth Seif of the law firm Seif & Austin in U.S. District Court in Lexington, Ky., Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum and unnamed others are accused of "obtaining boys through abduction, false inducement, or agreement" from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mauritania, and Sudan.
"These boys would then be trafficked across international borders by traffickers and smugglers posing as the boys' parents," the documents say. "Once these individuals arrived in the United Arab Emirates (‘U.A.E.') … they would then sell these boys into slavery to individuals in the camel-racing industry where the boys would, among other forced tasks, serve as jockeys."
The filing quotes a 2005 U.S. State Department report on slavery: "The children … work long hours in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, live in unsanitary conditions, receive little food, and are deprived of sleep so that they do not gain weight and increase the load on the camels they race.
"They are trained and kept under the watchful eyes of handlers, who employ abusive control tactics, including threats and beatings. Some are reportedly abused sexually. Many have been seriously injured and some have been trampled to death by camels."
The suit uses the boys' initials to protect their identities because, according to the court document, "Plaintiffs, both adult and minors, possess a fear of physical harm through retaliation for bringing this suit."
A Dubai-based lawyer representing the sheik, Dr. Habib al-Mullah, told the Associated Press in a statement that the lawsuit was baseless. "Venue shopping by the plaintiffs' attorneys won't change the fact that this case simply doesn't belong in U.S. courts," he said.
The suit is being brought by the parents of five former camel jockeys. "The majority of the parents who permitted their children to be taken abroad did so under the false pretext that the children were going to the U.A.E. to receive an education," the document says.
According to the filing, "In pursuit of their racing business and hobby, Defendants … purchased boys abducted or sold into slavery and trafficked into the United Arab Emirates, held them as property, and enslaved them to work as camel jockeys. Defendants participated in the slave trade by, inter alia, purchasing or leasing and then, when they were finished with them, disposing of slaves by trafficking them in an international slave trade."
The suit continues, "Defendants directly hired many others to work as camel trainers and overseers for them knowing that these trainers and overseers would enslave boys for them, buy and dispose of boys in the slave trade, and subject the boys to all manner of abuse."
Judge Cecilia Altonaga dismissed a similar case against Sheiks Hamdan and Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum in Miami in July because the former had insufficient business interests in Florida to allow the court jurisdiction.
"The lawsuit distracts attention from the truly important efforts by the U.A.E. and UNICEF to provide life changing social services and financial compensation to boys formerly employed as camel jockeys," Dr. Mullah said.
According to the AP, the suit is being brought under a 200-year-old federal law known as the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to sue in American courts in certain circumstances.
When the first suit was brought in Florida, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum appealed to Mr. Bush to have it dismissed, saying it was interfering with diplomatic relations between America and the United Arab Emirates. In response, the State Department filed a motion to intervene, arguing that the sheiks were protected from lawsuits by sovereign immunity.
A spokeswoman for the State Department, Nicole Thompson, told The New York Sun yesterday that the department does not comment on individual court cases. Ms. Seif did not respond to requests for comment by press time.