Federal prosecutors are investigating the Kuwaiti company building the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, probing allegations that foreign employees were brought to work on the massive project against their will and prevented from leaving the country.
The Department of Justice launched the probe of First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co. after former employees alleged that workers at the company were told they were being sent to Dubai, only to wind up in Iraq instead, people familiar with the matter said. According to the allegations, First Kuwaiti confiscated the workers' passports, so they were unable to depart Baghdad, these people said. [...]
The embassy compound is one of the only major U.S.-funded construction projects in Iraq that appears likely to be finished on schedule and within budget. The first State Department personnel are slated to begin moving into the new compound in September, with the remainder settling in by year's end. [...]
The new probe could be perilous for First Kuwaiti. If Justice found prosecution warranted, and convictions were obtained, the company and its executives could face steep civil and criminal penalties, including possibly being forced to return the nearly $600 million it has been paid by the U.S. government. Any executives proved to have taken part in alleged human-trafficking, meanwhile, might face lengthy prison sentences.
According to the company's Web site, First Kuwaiti is a privately owned company founded in 1996, with annual revenue topping $1 billion. [...]
Mr. [John] Owens [an American who formerly worked for the company in Baghdad], who had supervised construction of the embassy building, said he was waiting for a First Kuwaiti charter flight to Iraq in March 2006 when he noticed that the Pakistani and West African workers held boarding passes for Dubai. He asked a First Kuwaiti official about the discrepancy, and said he was told it was a way to get the workers past Kuwaiti customs. Mr. Owens, who lives in the U.S., assumed the workers knew they were going to Iraq, he said.
Mr. [Rory] Mayberry [another American], the second former employee, said he himself had been given a boarding pass marked for Dubai on a First Kuwaiti charter flight that he knew was bound for Baghdad. "It was the first sign that something was a bit off with the company," he says.