An investigation is underway after police say dozens of people were found shackled and in cages inside a rehabilitation center for former prisoners in Trinidad and Toabgo on Wednesday.
Authorities said at least 69 men and women were rescued from a “modern day slavery” operation at the Transformed Life Ministry Rehabilitation Center in Arouca, just outside the capitol city of Port of Spain, according to Reuters. The compound is reportedly run by a religious organization aimed at helping ex-prisoners transition back into society.
Six staffers were arrested after police discovered several men and women locked inside cages during a raid of the facility. The Trinidad Express, a daily newspaper, reported that pastor and organization/church founder Rev. Glen Awong was among those detained and questioned.
Awong, an ex-prisoner himself, decried authorities’ claims that his center is involved in human trafficking or was operating what police Commissioner Gary Griffith described as a slave house. Rather, he said he believes he is being targeted because he’s currently in a legal battle with the government for non-payment of $1.4 million.
“I worked for the government under the street dwellers program with the Ministry of Social Development, and they are owing me money,” Awong told the Express on Thursday. “There is a cabal to come strong against me [and] paint me in black.”
“I am recommended by doctors, health facilities, so all they are saying is not true,” he added. “If it was true, they had a right to lock me up and my staff yesterday.”
Staff at the facility also defended Awong’s character, describing him as an altruistic, “hardworking” man.
“I want to know where the police got human trafficking from?”one worker told the outlet. “Because these people are not being trafficked. They’re all here and accounted for, and there are documents and receipts for these people because it’s not a free service.”
The parents of one of the male victims painted a much different picture, however, and said they intended to speak out about the “the horrifying experience they endured and continue to endure by the loss of their son in these most tragic circumstances.”
Its unclear if the man died while detained at the facility.
Police said the victims, who are all Trinidad and Tobago nationals, range in age from 19 over 65 and were transported to a medical facial for treatment.
In an interview with the Express, Awong acknowledged keeping some patients in seclusion rooms if they were a danger to themselves or others — not in cages, as it’s been alleged.
He said his organization has been dedicated to helping the formerly incarcerated, mentally ill and drug addicted for the last 20 years.
The incident remains under investigation.