2 September 2007

Uganda: Former Iraq Guards Sue Contractor Over Breach of Contract

Kampala — Dreshak International - a major recruiter of Ugandan guards for work in Iraq - is the target of a slew of pending litigation for breaches of contract and workplace abuses in Iraq, charges that security contracting firm not only denies, but is relishing disproving in court.

Leading the charge is Joseph Kitungi, who worked in Iraq from January 2006 until this June. The 14-year veteran of the UPDF has already filed a lawsuit against the Dubai-based company, claiming that Dreshak promised $6,000 a month in a newspaper advertisement but only ended up paying him $1,000 a month.

More litigation will be arriving in court in the coming weeks, much of it propelled by Dr. Gideon Tusigye, who worked in Iraq from April 2006 until this June. Dr. Tusigye charges that after a few months in Iraq, Dreshak and its parent company Special Operations Consulting - Security Management Group (SOC-SMG) forced him and other guards to sign different, less favorable contracts - including a provision that required them to buy $621 worth of gear that had initially been free.

Dr. Tusigye carries a thick stack of documents to meetings that he says proves Dreshak's guilt: an email from Crane Bank citing monthly payments ranging from $450 to $1150, short of the $1400 he says was promised him, as well as the initial contract and the agreement he signed in Iraq that forces guards to pay for their own gear.

Mr Kitungi is seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages from the company, and Dr. Tusigye and other guards are expected to make similar demands.

The disgruntled former guards have also gotten the attention of Worker's MP Sam Lyomoki, who is planning to launch a select committee in Parliament next week to examine the claims.

"We're going to investigate them very closely and very creatively," Mr. Lyomoki said. "This is a terrible gang - a mafia - trying to defraud Ugandan workers."

Mr. Lyomoki would like to see more government oversight of the contracting process. The Ministry of Labour is currently understaffed, with a budget of just $30 million. The ministry has also lacked a permanent leader since May, when Labour Commissioner Dr. David Ogaram was suspended over allegations of embezzlement.

But the group's case has plenty of holes, and Alok Dheer, Dreshak's country manager, is excited to take the former guards to court. He admitted that the appendix that required Ugandan guards to provide their own gear was wrong - Dr. Ogaram apprised Dreshak of that fact in January, and the company reimbursed employees the $621 and removed the clause from future contracts.

The rest of the charges, said, are bogus.

"This is Gideon and some unemployed lawyers out to make a fast buck," said Mr. Dheer, whose company has 1,800 Ugandans deployed in Iraq as security guards at wages from $900 to $1200 a month.

Mr. Kitungi's lawsuit is a "joke," he argued, pointing out that Dreshak has never advertised in newspapers, as the suit litigation claims. More significantly, Dreshak is just a recruitment firm; Mr. Kitungi's lawsuit should be directed at SOC-SMG, Mr. Dheer added, though he was confident that the company would win that legal battle too.

Mr. Dheer also denied Dr. Tusigye's accusations, saying that he had been recruited as a $900-a-month guard and was paid in full. The discrepancies in the email from Crane Bank likely arose from how much cash he received in Iraq, he added.

The most damaging - and mysterious - evidence against Dr. Tusigye has been his interactions with the U.S. Embassy. On August 8, Dreshak and SOC-SMG officials received an email from someone purporting to be Deputy Defence Attaché Timothy Lohof, who is a real employee of the embassy.

In the email, which Daily Monitor obtained a copy of, the author says that he has been investigating the allegations of abuse and encourages the company to "please attend to their grievances & (sic) if possible provide a lasting solution before their case drags United States (sic) into a dispute." The email also applauds "one Dr. Gideon" whose evidence of abuse "seems to carry more weight."

The email - filled with grammatical errors, written in British English, and sent from a Yahoo email account - immediately raised red flags at SOC-SMG and Dreshak.

On August 21, Major Greg Joachim, defence attaché to Uganda, sent an email - also obtained by Daily Monitor - to the companies setting the story straight. According to Maj. Joachim, Mr. Lohof met with Dr. Tusigye in mid-August after the latter contacted the embassy promising to provide intelligence concerning Somalia. During the meeting, Dr. Tusigye and "a couple of other Ugandan individuals" gave a long-winded rundown of grievances they had against SOC-SMG. Maj. Joachim wrote that Mr. Lohof took notes but did not take action after the meeting and did not send the August 8 email to SOC-SMG and Dreshak.

When reached by telephone, Maj. Joachim declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Dr. Tusigye denied sending the email, however, and accused Mr. Dheer of diverting attention away from the real issues.

But the proof is in the pudding regarding alleged abuses, Mr. Dheer argued. Ninety percent of guards complete their tours of duty, and the majority of guards re-enlist. In preparing for the pending litigation, he has compiled a veritable tome of emails from current and former contractors rebutting Dr. Tusigye's claims. Some of the current litigants, he added, have approached him for jobs even as they complain in the press about contract breaches.

Mr. Dheer said he would welcome a select committee to clear the air, and that he feels bad for the former guards, who he argued have been duped by Dr. Tusigye and deceptive lawyers. But business is business, and he said he would use the pending litigation as a deterrent to future frivolous lawsuits.

"I pity these guys," he said. "They lost their jobs, they made some money, and now they're going to lose it in litigation."

When asked about the possibility of a counter-suit, Mr. Kitungi was defiant.

"I do not care," he said. "Let us go into battle."

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