Pakistani Camel Jockey Ring Foiled

Actress Hayden Panettiere, right, and co-star actor Jack Carpenter attend a special screening of 'I Love You, Beth Cooper' hosted by Seventeen Magazine, Tuesday, July 7, 2009 in New York.
Five children, all younger than 7, were safe with police Monday after immigration officials stopped them from being smuggled to the United Arab Emirates to be used as camel jockeys.

Police detained a couple posing as the children's parents and two other people believed to be involved in an organization supplying child jockeys to the Emirates.

Camel racing dates back hundreds of years in the Gulf, and although using child jockeys is illegal in most places, they are still prized as jockeys because they are lighter than adults, enabling camels to run faster.

Immigration officials said suspicions were aroused Sunday when they noticed that the children seemed scared as they prepared to board a flight from Islamabad to Dubai.

"When they arrived near the immigration counter, the children started crying," immigration officer Gulzar Ahmed told The Associated Press.

The couple tried to console the children but "we doubted from their body language they were the real parents," Ahmed said.

Under questioning the couple, who are husband and wife, admitted to police that they were taking the children to the United Arab Emirates to be used in camel racing.

The two other suspects were detained outside the airport terminal where they were waiting for the flight to take off before telephoning contacts in the Emirates, Ahmed said.

Rights groups say Pakistan is a primary source for young camel jockeys.

Zia Awan, president of Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid, a nongovernment group working for women's and children's rights, said hundreds of Pakistani children are sent to the Emirates every year to become camel jockeys. Most are younger than ten.

Some parents are willing to let their children work as jockeys and travel with them to the Emirates, Awan said. Other children are sold to traders or kidnapped from their families.

"Most of the children are lured into this trap because their parents are attracted by the prospect of ... a way out of their abject and hopeless poverty," Awan said.

The rights group said in a report published this year that at least 30 boys a month were being kidnapped in Pakistan "to feed the banned slave trade in racing of camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates."

Although camel racing in the Emirates is hundreds of years old, using children as jockeys dates back only as far as the early 1970s. Initially children were brought from Oman and Sudan. Later, however, children were purchased from Pakistan and other South Asian countries.

Authorities say race organizers prefer children younger than ten and weighing between 33 to 37 pounds.

"The younger and lighter the child, and louder the screams of terror, the greater the speed of the camel, is a general rule," said Tahir Nawaz Warraich, a police officer assigned to the latest case.

The children involved were aged between 12 months and seven years. Police were trying to locate their real parents.

Malik Tariq, assistant director of the Federal Investigation Agency, said policing the trade in children was difficult because there was no law against adults transporting children overseas. Most alleged smugglers were charged with immigration violations, which carry a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment, he said.