Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Diplomats Abuse their Workers, Invoke Immunity

From Newsday.com:

By Anthony M. Destefano
July 28, 2008

Federal investigators have uncovered numerous cases of foreign diplomats - mostly in New York and Washington, D.C. - who abused their domestic workers without fear of prosecution because of diplomatic immunity, according to a government report to be released tomorrow.

The level of cruelty of some of the allegations appears similar to those recently uncovered in the human trafficking prosecution of Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani, the Muttontown business couple convicted of abusing two Indonesian maids. At the federal trial in Central Islip the maids, who have sued the Sabhnanis, said they were tortured and beaten, sometimes resorting to foraging for food in garbage pails.

At least 42 cases of suspected abuse by diplomats - including allegations of forced labor, human trafficking and physical abuse - have been uncovered in the past eight years, the Government Accountability Office study found, according to people who have seen summaries of the document.

GAO officials wouldn't release the report in advance of its scheduled unveiling tomorrow. But congressional staffers familiar with the report's contents said the diplomats suspected of the abuses were assigned to various embassies and United Nations missions. In some instances the officials were involved with agencies like the World Bank, said the staffers, who added that the report doesn't identify specific countries involved.

Juhu Thukral, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center in Manhattan who helps trafficking victims, said domestic workers represent the largest number of victims in trafficking cases and their plight is exacerbated by physical and language isolation.

But while the victims in the Sabhnani case saw their employers prosecuted and were able to file lawsuits, foreign diplomats who abuse domestic workers are insulated from criminal prosecution and most lawsuits under the Vienna Convention, the international treaty ratified here in 1961 that provides diplomatic immunity.

Earlier this month, Marichu Suarez Baoanan, 39, sued the former chief of the Philippines mission to the United Nations, Lauro Liboon Baja, Jr., in federal court in Manhattan. In her complaint, Baoanan said Baja and his family lured her from the Philippines and subjected her to forced labor at the official residence. But in court papers, Baja's attorneys argue that he is protected from the lawsuit by the Vienna Convention.

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