Diplomats Accused of Behaving Badly but Protected by Immunity

In recent years, this modern-day horror story has become all too familiar: a young woman claims that she has been enslaved, abused and even raped by a foreign diplomat stationed in the United States.

The prosecution of these kinds of alleged crimes is almost always stymied due to diplomatic immunity, which, using longstanding international agreements, shields diplomats from prosecution when stationed overseas.

Often, the alleged offenders are quietly sent back to their home countries or reassigned to an embassy or consulate in another country.

The latest case involves a woman from India and a Kuwaiti diplomat based in Washington D.C., Brig. Gen. Ahmed S.J. al Naser, who brought the woman to the U.S. to work as a maid at his home in suburban Bethesda, Md.

In a federal lawsuit filed by the woman, she accuses al Naser of repeatedly raping her and says that he and his wife regularly beat her until she bled, confiscated her passport and forced her to work 17 hours a day, seven days a week, without pay.

The 34-year-old woman, whose parents died when she was a child and grew up in an Indian orphanage, claims that al Naser sexually abused her when his wife was not at home.

She has also met several times with the FBI, which is investigating her case, according to Ayuda, a D.C.-based social and legal services provider that helped her leave Naser's house and find a new home.

Criminal charges have so far not been made in the case. But in the woman's lawsuit, she claims that the couple forced her to eat her meals on the floor of the kitchen even after she injured her leg when the diplomat's wife, Muna S.M.N. al Najdai, repeatedly kicked her with her high-heeled shoes.

The complaint also says al Naser, who has since returned to Kuwait, threatened to deport her to Kuwait if she complained, ominously warning that he had friends there and "They'd know what to do."

The woman claims that she finally escaped when she was taking out the garbage one day and a neighboring housekeeper met her and put her in touch with Ayuda, a D.C.-based legal and social services provider, according to court papers.

The Kuwaiti government was also named as a defendant in the suit filed in federal court in Washington D.C. The Kuwaiti embassy's chief of mission, Nabil al-Dakheel, did not return calls for comment.

Since the defendants are still in the process of being served, they have not answered the complaint.

The woman's lawyers at Crowell & Moring declined to comment.

'Tip of the Iceberg'

The case is one of several such lawsuits filed in recent years by former housekeepers and maids alleging abuse by diplomats.

"In recent years, foreign diplomats have perpetrated some of the worst trafficking abuses reported in the United States," according to "Eradicating Slavery," an October 2007 report from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

There have been at least 42 cases of suspected abuse by diplomats in the past eight years, according to a Government Accountability Office report released today, which stated that the number was probably higher due to domestic workers' fear of contacting law enforcement.

"This is the tip of the iceberg -- there are more and more cases being filed involving diplomats abusing their domestic workers," says Steven Macpherson Watt, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who has helped represent three Indian women who sued a Kuwaiti diplomat for abusing them, among other charges.

"These are egregious human rights violations but immunity still prevails for these diplomats."

Only 17 of the 42 cases noted in the GAO report were handled by federal agencies

One reason for the recent spurt of cases is the large amount of domestic workers in the D.C. area, the diversity of the foreign community there and the new powers of federal prosecutors to pursue such cases.

Domestic abuse activists cite the continued reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which encourages the prosecution of abusers, as a major factor in the surge of lawsuits. Yet federal prosecutions of diplomats on criminal charges are rare since they require that country to waive diplomatic immunity.

"That act really clarified the recovery and types of claims that could be brought by women who had been abused," says Kimberly Peacock, the director of community organizing and political action at CASA de Maryland, a legal and social services group.

"When someone comes into our office or we go and find them, we very often go directly to federal attorneys who have a lot of experience bringing involuntary servitude cases."

Last month, Marichu Suarez Baoanan filed suit in federal court in New York, alleging that the former Phillipine ambassador to the United Nations, Lauro L. Baja Jr., and his family physically and verbally abused her while paying her only $100 to work for three months as a maid in their New York City residence.

She claimed that the family forced her to go shopping in the winter wearing only summer clothes, made her sleep in the basement with only a sheet and refused to discipline their son when he allegedly kicked Baoanan in the face, according to the complaint.

Baja, who claimed that he paid Baoana $1,000 a month, returned to the Philippines and is now president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's special envoy for interfaith dialogue and debt-for-equity initiatives.

No charges were filed against Baja after an initial criminal investigation by U.S. authorities.

Two weeks ago, Baja's lawyer, Salvador Tuy, filed a motion to dismiss the case citing diplomatic immunity. Tuy did not return calls and e-mails for comment.

Another Kuwaiti diplomat, Major Waleed al Saleh, was accused by three Indian women of keeping them in domestic slavery, beating them and paying them only $250-$350 a month, in a federal lawsuit still pending from June 2006.

When one of the women, Mani Kumari Sabbithi, escaped from the home, a neighbor called the police and the woman were rescued, according to that complaint.

In the most recent filing in the case, the Justice Department filed a statement with federal court in Washington, saying that diplomat immunity applies to al-Saleh "notwithstanding the characterization of Defendant's alleged conduct as constituting human trafficking."

Al-Saleh, whose lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the complaint asserting his diplomatic immunity in lieu of an answer, has returned to Kuwait. The Kuwaiti Embassy did not return repeated calls for comment on his case.

Diplomatic immunity provides absolute criminal immunity and almost absolute civil immunity with some narrow exceptions tied to commercial activity, say lawyers involved in such cases.

On one occasion, law enforcement authorities closed an investigation of abuse by a diplomat for lack of evidence "after they determined that constraints posed by immunity prevented investigators from talking to witnesses inside a foreign diplomat's home," according to the GAO report.

In 2003, another Indian woman, using the nickname, "Sheela," accused a Kuwaiti diplomat, Bader al-Awadi, in a still-pending federal lawsuit, of beating and insulting her, paying her less than 50 cents an hour, depriving her of her passport and raping her.

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The Kuwaiti mission to the United Nations continues to deny the accusations in that case, and claims that the diplomat and his wife, who is now stationed in Paris, have full diplomatic immunity. Lawyers for the woman are planning to file a motion of default judgment this Friday.

"You can't expect a diplomat to say, 'I abused her,'" said Salah Alsaid, First Secretary of the Kuwaiti consulate in New York, attributing some of the recent claims against diplomats by domestic workers to "cultural differences."

"I believe that he's [Bader al-Awadi] a good man but I can't tell you what happens behind closed doors."