Conned stu­dents threat­ened mass sui­cide

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By

IToni Ni­cholas n Septem­ber of 2014 I had a brief meet­ing with one Dr. Ahmed Shams at a Gros Islet build­ing that would house the lat­est “off­shore” academy. It was named Lam­birds Academy and Dr. Shams in­formed me that the school would of­fer “Bri­tish De­grees” in Hos­pi­tal­ity, Tourism, ICT, Trade and Cruise.

He also boasted that what would set his academy apart from sim­i­lar schools in the re­gion was that stu­dents would be guar­an­teed paid in­tern­ships and jobs. I was shown a cer­tifi­cate of ac­cred­i­ta­tion, pur­port­ing to be from the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion in Saint Lu­cia, bear­ing what ap­peared to be a par­tic­u­lar gov­ern­ment min­is­ter’s sig­na­ture.

At the time of my meet­ing with Shams the academy was also ad­ver­tis­ing a cook-off and bak­ing com­pe­ti­tion among lo­cal contestants slated for Oc­to­ber 2014.

I soon pro­ceeded on va­ca­tion hav­ing promised Dr. Shams a fea­ture story on my re­turn to work. Our planned fol­low-up in­ter­view never hap­pened.

A few weeks ago I re­ceived an email in the name “De­varul” headed “Mass Sui­cide Re­port.” The writer claimed to be one of about 150 stu­dents ad­mit­ted to col­lege by … (names omit­ted). There were some 300 more plan­ning to reg­is­ter at the school af­ter they were promised per­ma­nent res­i­dence fol­low­ing two years in Saint Lu­cia; USA or Canadian visas, 40-hour part­time jobs at $10 an hour, and free visas for fam­ily mem­bers. Also of­fered were ho­tel jobs that paid $450 a month.

The email writer also claimed stu­dents had each paid US$10,000 plus $4000 for ad­di­tional visas for fam­ily mem­bers. How­ever, af­ter the money was paid and the stu­dents ar­rived here they were un­able to reach their lo­cal hosts, one a fe­male who the email writer claimed is the di­vorced wife of a for­mer gov­ern­ment min­is­ter.

The stu­dents claimed to have sold prop­erty and used fam­ily sav­ings to raise the money to come to Saint Lu­cia in search of bet­ter days.

Their plea: “Sir, please take the ac­tion im­me­di­ately be­fore rest of the guys dis­ap­pear. We al­ready lost our life. If you are not take any ac­tion im­me­di­ately we are all go­ing to com­mit mass sui­cide.”

We had since at­tempted to val­i­date the let­ter and at­tempted to ver­ify the le­git­i­macy of Lam­birds.

The next time I heard of Dr. Shams was on Fri­day, Fe­bru­ary 27, when a col­league in­formed me that he had been brought in by lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cers for ques­tion­ing. By the end of that day, I learned that Dr. Shams and five other in­di­vid­u­als were in po­lice cus­tody. Sev­eral stu­dents who had been lured to the is­land by Lam­birds’ too­good-to-be-true ad­ver­tise­ment were also be­ing ques­tioned by the po­lice. They were all from In­dia and Nepal.

On Mon­day March 2, four of those ear­lier ar­rested were of­fi­cially charged with hu­man traf­fick­ing. They ap­peared in court the fol­low­ing day, Tues­day March 3, and were de­nied bail.

At a press con­fer­ence on Tues­day, act­ing po­lice com­mis­sioner Frances Henry said: “There were a num­ber of ini­tia­tives un­der­taken in re­spect to our coun­try con­stantly be­ing in­vaded by some per­pe­tra­tors out there, rec­og­niz­ing that there is op­por­tu­nity in this coun­try.” Speak­ing di­rectly of last week’s op­er­a­tion, Frances Henry said that a for­mal com­plaint had been re­ceived from some of the stu­dents and an in­ves­ti­ga­tion launched im­me­di­ately. She went on: “About 4 a.m. Fri­day, po­lice mounted an op­er­a­tion specif­i­cally tar­get­ing six lo­ca­tions through­out the north of the is­land.” At least sixty in­di­vid­u­als were iden­ti­fied, six of whom were held for ques­tion­ing. Suit­able board­ing is be­ing sought for the stranded in­di­vid­u­als, all non­na­tion­als.

A num­ber of doc­u­ments were seized dur­ing the raid at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions. Henry also dis­closed that fol­low­ing Tues­day’s court ap­pear­ance of the four, the mat­ter would be down for case man­age­ment on March 11, 2015.

“This does not bring to an end the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. We are con­tin­u­ing this in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Henry em­pha­sized. “I can say with con­fi­dence, we will con­tinue to see other charges be­ing prof­fered against the in­di­vid­u­als that we have in our cus­tody, as well as other per­sons we are seek­ing af­ter.” Since then Iftekhar Shams of Bonne Terre, Gros Islet (one of the four pre­vi­ously charged with Hu­man Traf­fick­ing) has been slapped with the ad­di­tional charge of money laun­der­ing. The four men are presently re­manded at the Borde­lais Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity.

To date there has been no re­lated state­ment from the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs, nor the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion that re­port­edly ac­cred­ited Lam­birds Academy. No one knows for sure what due dili­gence went into Lam­birds be­ing ac­cred­ited by The Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion as well as a trade li­cense by the Gov­ern­ment to op­er­ate.

Yes­ter­day (Fri­day March 6) stranded stu­dents

waited out­side the Lam­birds build­ing in Gros Islet for the po­lice who promised to take fur­ther state­ments from them as well as lo­cate suit­able

board­ing for some.

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