Mohammad Shareeq and Oniba Qureshi were never supposed to go on a second honeymoon. Not after Oniba found out two days before their flight to Qatar last July that she was pregnant with their first child. But the “sponsor” of their trip, Shareeq’s paternal aunt Tabassum Riyaz Qureshi, did not react to the news with happiness.
“I’ve spent so much money for you and Oniba to have a good time in Qatar. If you cancel now, I will lose a lot of money. And are you telling me that pregnant women don’t fly?” Qureshi is alleged to have told her nephew.
In the end, the young couple was forced to travel to Bengaluru in an air-conditioned bus and catch their flight from the Kempegowda International Airport. “Before leaving, Tabassum handed them a bag which she said contained tobacco. She said that once they checked into their hotel room in Qatar, someone would come and collect the bag from them,” said Oniba’s mother Parveen Qureshi.
What happened once Shareeq and Oniba arrived at the Hammad International Airport in Qatar on July 6, 2019, was a scene that countless unwitting drug mules have had to face at airports around the world while carrying a piece of luggage entrusted to them at the last minute.
The local drug enforcement agency searched the bag and found 4.1 kilograms of hashish inside. Despite the couple’s protestations of innocence, the Supreme Judiciary Council of Qatar found them guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment in December last year. While in jail, Oniba had a baby girl named Ayat Qureshi earlier this year.
Back in her home in Mumbai Central, Oniba’s mother Parveen rues not stopping her daughter from going to Qatar. The couple, both 29 years old, had married in May 2018 and gone to Bangkok for their honeymoon. Shareeq, an administrative consultant with the Japanese financial technology firm Hyosung, was due to be promoted before his arrest. Oniba had quit her job as an assistant manager with a private firm in Mumbai after her marriage.
“Oniba did not want to go. But since Shareeq’s aunt was insistent on giving them a wedding gift, I told her to go. I wish I hadn’t let her go,” she said.
Since December, both Shareeq and Oniba’s families had written to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Union Home Minister and Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), seeking help for their children.
On September 27, 2019, Oniba’s father, Shakeel Ahmed Qureshi, filed a complaint with NCB against Tabassum and her associate Nizam Kara. He also sent copies of phone calls in which Tabassum allegedly coaxed and emotionally blackmailed her nephew into going to Qatar. Following several months of surveillance, the NCB arrested six people for running a “well-organized drug trafficking syndicate”. On October 14, the NCB tracked down Kara, who admitted to having set up Shareeq and Oniba, said NCB Deputy Director KPS Malhotra. The Government of India, the NCB and the Indian Embassy in Qatar are now helping the families file an appeal against the conviction.
“We are grateful to our government for all they are doing for us. We are following the judicial process and have lost 6-7 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We are hopeful that once we file an appeal, the court in Qatar will take into account the fact that Oniba and Shareeq are innocent and that the persons who implicated them are in the NCB’s custody,” said Parveen.
In jail, the couple has also met other Indian citizens who were similarly duped into transporting luggage by cartels supplying drugs to Qatar.
Drug enforcement officials in Mumbai said that most drugs flow to Qatar in concealed bags in the hands of unsuspecting mules flying from Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune airports.
Two years ago, a 27-year-old Kurla resident travelling to Qatar was arrested at the Mumbai International Airport after 465 grams of amphetamines valued at Rs 23.35 lakh were found concealed inside the covers of three story books, 13 pairs of bangles and the handle of a skipping rope in her luggage.
The Anti Narcotics Cell of the Mumbai Police later arrested four people for operating a racket in which mules were sent to Qatar with drugs and instructed to return to India transporting gold. The woman who was responsible for identifying carriers, purchasing flight tickets and paying commissions was a Carnac Bunder resident named Tabassum Shaikh.
Parveen hopes that sympathy her daughter and son-in-law’s imprisonment has aroused will also help other Indian citizens jailed in Qatar. “We just want our children to come back and hope their case also facilitates the return of other innocent Indians,” she said.
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