‘I’m being kidnapped’: Australian beauty queen caught up in complex web

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EXCLUSIVE: A bizarre scheme run by people claiming to be an international human rights group has prompted warnings for people to be careful who they trust online.

In the back of a black Range Rover in Beirut, windows blacked out, hurtling towards an unknown destination, Rebecca Boggiano closed her eyes and thought of her mum.

Her mother, concerned about her travelling alone to a foreign country to attend a beauty pageant, had made Rebecca promise she would not, under any circumstances, get into a car with strange men.

But when two, burly chain-smoking men with a car full of guns grabbed her at the airport and said, ‘you’re coming with us,’ she didn’t feel she had a choice.

“As soon as I got in the car my heart was pounding, you know, 'who are these people?', I’m thinking, 'Oh my God, I’m being kidnapped.'”

A private message on Facebook had lured Ms Boggiano, 23, more than 12,000km from home. It was from a woman who introduced herself as Asra Khan.

Having seen pictures of her previous modeling work, she wanted to invite her to represent Australia at a prestigious beauty pageant - Miss Universal Peace and Humanity.

'It doesn’t actually do anything'

Promising large cash prizes and the chance to compete against women from more than 75 countries, it was an opportunity too good to refuse.

'As soon as I got in the car my heart was pounding.'

The pageant is run by the International Human Rights Commission (IHRC), which looks at first glance like a large and credible international organisation.

On closer inspection cracks begin to emerge, such as spelling errors, the use of gmail addresses, and the fact that the organisation cannot be verified by anything outside of itself.

It lists ‘Ambassadors’ in several countries – including Australia. 

 

David Allen worked with the Australian Federal Police for more than 30 years and now works privately, offering advice to victims of possible scams.

SBS asked him for his opinion of the pageant and the organisation running it.

“It’s a fascinating website," he said. "It appears on the surface to be a major diplomatic organisation with lofty ideals. It’s very grandiose in its description of activities. But when you actually look and drill into it, it doesn’t actually do anything."

There are similar inconsistencies on the pageant website. Mr Allen pointed out that at least one of the contestant's photos appears elsewhere online under a different name for a different pageant, suggesting it may have been stolen.

"It appears to me as though he fancies himself as some supreme world diplomat."

The self-proclaimed ‘World Chairman’ of the International Human Rights Commission is Dr Muhammed Shahid Amin Khan, Asra Khan’s husband.

Ms Khan is listed as the group’s ‘Foreign Minister’.

UN denies any links to The International Human Rights Commission 

The website includes a series of photos of Dr Khan, shaking hands and speaking with mostly former politicians, in places such as Guinea Bissau and Lebanon.

There are also photographs of Dr Khan standing outside the United Nations and a selfie, apparently taken in the visitors gallery of the UN.

“It appears to me as though he (Khan) fancies himself as some supreme world diplomat. But he has no standing, and the group is without accreditation,” Mr Allen said.

The IHRC claims on its website to have ‘partnership status’ with the United Nations.

The UN said there is no such thing. 

“The International Human Rights Commission has no links to the United Nations, official or otherwise," a spokesperson has confirmed to SBS. 

The group appears to be based in Pakistan. A search of internet caches reveals the website has been up for least six years, originating as a geocities page, and previously calling itself “World Peace Mission Organisation”.

It has managed to slip mostly under the radar, with a few exceptions. On various online forums, commenters warn people not to do business with the Khans.

'He just vanished into thin air'

Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported in 2004 the group had organised a ‘World Peace Conference’ which failed to eventuate, leaving four foreign tourists stranded and out of cash.

“He has just vanished into thin air!” the paper quoted the cultural attaché of Spain, Vincent Mas, saying of IHRC Chairman, Dr Khan.

This vanishing act, seemingly repeated by the Khans in December 2014, was how Rebecca Boggiano found herself unwittingly in the back of that black Range Rover. 

'.... as long as you weren’t on their bad side, you’d be ok.'

The men took her to a hotel in downtown Beirut, telling her they had been duped by the organisers, who owed them money.

She locked herself in a toilet until other contestants arrived. Only four other models turned up.

Stranded in Lebanon, Ms Boggiano reasoned that if the men wanted to kill her, she would likely already be dead.

“To this day I still don’t know who they are. I figured, these are the only people looking after us, and although they seemed scary, it felt like as long as you weren’t on their bad side, you’d be ok.”

Ms Boggiano says they were taken to meet various people, including a man they were told was the prince of Jordan.

“He was decked out in jewels, and snake skin shoes and crocodile skin jacket, rings and diamond phone case,” she said.

SBS could not verify the man’s identity or whether he had any links to the Jordanian royal family.   

At the home of one of the men, the models were shown various exotic guns, including one, Ms Boggiano says they were told used to belong to a relative of Saddam Hussein. 

Meanwhile, the models were getting mixed messages from the organisers; who told them the pageant had been cancelled, but that a press conference would be held and a ‘ceremonial Queen’ crowned. This also failed to eventuate.

Ms Boggiano says concern for her safety turned to embarrassment about what she would tell people back home.

“One of the girls, Ruhi (Singh), who represented India, was devastated, because her country takes pageants very seriously. She had been trained for this pageant and she’d been sent with thousands of dollars of excess luggage."

Ms Boggiano says the contestants agreed to pretend Ms Singh had won the pageant, to allow her to save face.

She claims they took photographs of Ms Singh in the hotel lobby, wearing a sash and holding flowers.

Those photos are now on the pageant website, which lists Ms Singh as the winner of Miss Universal Peace and Humanity 2014, and Ms Boggiano as the "runner-up".

Ms Singh confirmed to SBS no pageant had taken place, adding that all the humanitarian activities listed on the website she had organised herself.

The models made it home unharmed. But Ms Boggiano still has no idea why she was sent to Lebanon. She says organisers even paid for her plane tickets.

“I still have no idea why we had to be there," she said. "We did meet one guy who told us he’d invested something like $2 million into the pageant.” 

By the time they returned to their home countries, they had become even further entangled. In the Indian media, Ms Singh was lauded as the winner of a prestigious pageant. She went on to star in a Bollywood film.

And months later, a 2015 pageant was announced – in Dubai. This time, contestants paid for their airfares.

The organisers claimed the pageant would be held over a week at Dubai’s prestigious Sheikh Rashid Hall, and sent contestants copies of hotel bookings.

SBS contacted both the venue and the hotel and learned no pageant had ever been booked. The hotel told SBS a woman named Asra had booked 15 rooms, but then cancelled at short notice.

And when it was too late for anyone to get refunds on their airfares, the pageant was delayed. In November, organisers announced the pageant would be held in an entirely different location - Colombo, Sri Lanka.

SBS has spoken to three Australian women invited to attend. At least one Australian woman told us she still intends to travel to the pageant. She did not wish to be interviewed.

None of the women SBS spoke to had sent any money directly to organisers. Some did send copies of passports and other personal details.

Caution urged over the risk of identity theft 

The exact nature of the organisation and its reasons for running the beauty pageant remain a mystery.

Russell Smith, from the Australian Institute of Criminology, would not comment specifically on this case, but said sending passport details to anyone online was risky.

“Often the value that the criminals are after is information and that can be used to perpetrate an identity fraud,” he said.

Mr Allen describes Australian passports as “the gold standard for identity theft”.

SBS also called the numbers listed for the International Human Rights Commission and spoke to someone from the Pakistan headquarters, who responded to questions about its UN affiliation saying, “we are very busy”.

We also contacted Asra Khan, and in a series of messages, she defended changes to the pageant dates and location citing "security concerns" and issues with visas.

She did not explain her role at the International Human Rights Commission or provide any evidence of its human rights work.

At the time of writing, the Miss Universal Peace and Humanity website was still active and promoting the next pageant, which was supposed to have run from December 5 to 11 in Sri Lanka.

Update: 
 
In a letter to SBS, received in January 2016, Dr Khan said the IHRC had never claimed to be part of the United Nations.
 
Dr Khan said the group’s charter supports “UN principles” and that the group works with “UN agencies as partner (sic) in different areas to help and promote the case (sic) of humanity.” You can read his full response here.

Do you have information about Miss Universal Peace and Humanity or the International Human Rights Commission? Please contact Brianna.Roberts@sbs.com.au

 

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