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Tajik Business Owners Sentenced To Prison Over Fake Job Recruitment Scam

On top of trying to find sporadic odd jobs to support his wife and his elderly parents, this victim of the fake-job scam says he is struggling to pay back a bank loan he took out to recover his "recruitment fee."

DUSHANBE -- A court in Dushanbe has convicted two private business owners of defrauding more than 200 impoverished Tajiks through a fake job recruitment scheme that falsely guaranteed them employment at an auto plant in the Czech Republic.

The Somoni District Court in Dushanbe sentenced Bakhtivor Arabov, co-owner and director of the Dushanbe-based firm Garduna, to nine years in prison after finding him guilty of taking part in a criminal conspiracy to commit fraud.

Tous Hushkadamova, Garduna's deputy director and chief accountant, was sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to pay the state a fine of about $80,000 on the criminal fraud charge.

The court has yet to issue a verdict for a third Garduna co-owner charged in the case -- Garduna Deputy Director Tokhir Rustamov, who is Hushkadamova’s husband.

Authorities say Rustamov has fled Tajikistan and is now thought to be residing in neighboring Uzbekistan.

Despite the verdicts and prison sentences given to Arabov and Hushkadamova, victims of the scheme who were swindled out of a total of about $250,000 told RFE/RL that they were not satisfied with the court's October 30 ruling.

“We don’t care whether they go to prison,” said Zoir Unusov, an unemployed resident of a village near Dushanbe who paid Garduna’s bogus $1,320 "recruitment fee" in September 2018. "We just want our money back."

Unusov is among the victims who plan to appeal the court ruling in an attempt to be compensated for their losses.

But he says the court has still not provided the legal documentation on the ruling that is needed to file a formal appeal.

Tajikistan's Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption launched a criminal investigation into Garduna’s fraudulent activities in March 2019 after more than 200 victims across the country registered complaints.

More than half of the impoverished victims took out bank loans and have struggled to repay the debt, the agency says. Most have become desperate as the interest due on their unpaid loans has accrued.

The Dushanbe court ruled that Garduna’s owners committed fraud by guaranteeing Tajiks $1,300-a-month jobs at a Skoda Auto factory in the Czech Republic, a member of the European Union, if they produced a valid passport and paid the bogus $1,320 recruitment fee.

Garduna's co-owners showed application documents proving their firms were legally registered in Tajikistan, along with what they claimed would be their Skoda employment contracts.

They also showed victims photographs of an actual Skoda dormitory near a Skoda Auto factory in the Czech town of Mlada Boleslav where they claimed those who pay the "recruitment fee" would be housed as part of a "Skoda employment package."

Garduna did not ask applicants about their training or other qualifications to live and work in the European Union.

But they arranged for the targets of their scam to be interviewed by a 51-year old Czech man named Vaclav Skohoutil -- describing him as an "intermediary" between Garduna and a recruitment agency called Chekhovskaya that they claimed was working with Skoda Auto, a wholly owned subsidiary of Germany's Volkswagen Group, on "staff issues."

'A Bit Dodgy'

Tajik authorities say they have not received any response to an international warrant for Skohoutil's arrest that they’ve issued through Interpol in connection with the case.

Skoda Auto spokeswoman Kamila Biddle told RFE/RL that the automaker "is not linked with Garduna in any way," or with any recruitment agency called Chekhovskaya, and has "no involvement" in the activities of either company.

"This sounds a little bit dodgy," Biddle told RFE/RL about the scam in March when Tajik investigators launched the criminal case against Garduna’s owners.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) says fake job scams have become all too common, with "unscrupulous recruitment agencies" preying upon would-be migrant workers who want to travel abroad to build a better life for themselves and their families back home.

The ILO says many workers are not aware that they should not pay recruitment fees to get a job.

Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, warns that deceitful recruitment agencies also "take advantage of the lack of law enforcement by governments or because workers are simply not aware of their rights."

Among the world’s smaller economies, the World Bank said in October that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were among the top five remittance-dependent economies.

Money sent back home by Central Asian migrant workers totals more than three times that of official development aid, the World Banks says.

The Pew Research Center says the vast majority of Central Asian migrant workers -- more than 1 million from Uzbekistan and more than half a million each from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- work in Russia where they face complicated bureaucracy, exploitative employment conditions, and social isolation.

The ILO says this makes impoverished Central Asians particularly susceptible to fake job scams that "guarantee" employment in EU countries in exchange for paying a recruitment fee.