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KBR Accused of Relying on Enslaved Nepalis

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) - Five Nepali men want a federal judge to hammer the giant defense contractor KBR for using slave labor at a U.S. military base in Iraq.

Each of the plaintiffs behind the Sept. 28 lawsuit claims to have found themselves at Camp Fallujah in Iraq after labor recruiters lured them to Amman, Jordan with promises of jobs in luxury hotels and stores.

Once in Jordan, the men were stripped of their passports and locked in a crowded, filthy windowless room with an overflowing toilet.

"The captors mimed tearing up the men's passports and threatened to kill them by drawing their fingers across their throats as if to slit their throats," the 55-page complaint says.

No one explained where they were going when the captives were loaded up in cars and driven for hours, according to the complaint.

The men say they eventually learned that they had been brought to Iraq, and that the defense contractor formerly known as Kellogg, Brown and Root put them to work.

Having been awarded support-services contracts by the U.S. government, KBR needed "to recruit and provide thousands of laborers to pick up trash, pump gas, serve meals, clean, do the laundry and perform other menial but necessary tasks," according to the complaint.

The LogCap III contract, short for the Army's Logistics Augmentation Program, brought KBR more than $35 billion, the men say.

Krishna Prasad Adhikari, Biplav Bhatta, Lukendra Gurung, Sanjiv Gurung and Suraj Lamichhane say they took out loans with interest rates as high as 24 percent to pay steep "recruiting fees" to secure the promised jobs.

They say they earned $285 a month while working "long hours, often seven days a week." KBR supervisors allegedly ignored their pleas to return home.

"The bases were in a war zone," the 56-page complaint states. "Plaintiffs felt trapped and believe they had no way out."

The men say their passports were given back only when they were finally allowed to return to Nepal, between 2005 and 2007.

Alleging violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection and the Alien Tort Claims Act, among other laws, the plaintiffs seek punitive damages and an injunction.

They are represented by Washington, D.C., attorney Stephan Pershing and by the law firms Cohen Milstein and Schonbrun Desimone, plus two other solo-practice attorneys.

Back in 2009, KBR faced a different suit, that time in Houston, Texas, over its use of Nepali laborers.

In that case, 12 families claimed that their loved ones were captured and executed by the Ansar al-Sunna army on the way from Amman to al Asad military base near Ramadi, Iraq.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison threw that case out last year for lack of jurisdiction.

Ellison said the TVPRA does not extend to extraterritorial events that occurred before 2008 when Congress granted application of the law outside of U.S. borders. The legislative change cannot be applied retroactively, Ellison added.

The new case meanwhile involves acts occurred on a U.S. military base in Iraq.

Virginia-based KBR managers allegedly had full knowledge of the labor practice, and had the ultimate authority to release workers, keep them in Iraq or send them home.

"KBR's use of third-country national workers was a cost-avoidance measure that was used to determine the size of KBR's award fee," the lawsuit says.

The workers say KBR first received reports that its labor brokers were engaged in human trafficking in 2003. It also received complaints from internal employees and auditors and from the U.S. government and military, but its managers in the U.S. tried to keep a tight lid on the practice, the complaint says.

"KBR sought to squash allegations of forced labor and human trafficking and to silence potential whistleblowers," the complaint continues.

The five Nepali plaintiffs say they were forced to live in overcrowded shipping containers on a segregated and secluded part of the U.S. base, with few bathrooms.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs declined to comment on the case.

A spokeswoman with KBR denied the allegations.

"In the limited time we've had to analyze the allegations of the plaintiffs they do not represent any conduct KBR would tolerate," the spokeswoman said, declining to give her name for the article. "KBR policy was and is to treat each person with dignity and respect. We have rigorous programs and safeguards to ensure all KBR employees and subcontractors are treated humanely and safely."

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