Maid Accuses Saudi Princess of Abuse

O R L A N D O, Fla., Jan. 18, 2002 -- The Orange County Jail is a stark, no-nonsense facility — and an unlikely place to find a princess.

But that's exactly where Saudi Princess Buniah al Saud ended up last month, accused of hitting her Indonesian maid and pushing her down the stairs of her Orlando townhouse.

The princess, who denies the charges, is a niece of the Arab nation's King Fahd. Her arrest threatens to create an international incident and expose what human rights groups say are some ugly truths about the treatment of foreign servants employed by Saudis.

"Even though I'm a servant, I don't want to be hit," the maid, Ismiyati Soryono, told ABCNEWS' Brian Ross in an interview airing tonight on 20/20.

Orlando Popular With Saudi Royals

Orlando, with its fancy hotels and world-famous theme parks, has long been a favorite destination for members of the Saudi royal family.

"They are free to do whatever they want, to let their hair down, to enjoy and have a good time," said Abraham Pizam, dean of the school of tourism at the University of Central Florida.

Pizam said some of the Saudi royals would visit with as many as 30 or 40 servants, taking over a whole floor of a hotel and booking entire restaurants.

When Princess Buniah, 41, arrived in Orlando in March 2001 to study at the University of Central Florida, she brought a more modest retinue: just Soryono, her personal servant.

Life of a Royal Servant

Soryono, 36, came to Saudi Arabia from Indonesia. She said she became a royal servant, waiting on the princess hand and foot for a salary of $200 a month. Soryono said the princess even expected her to wait outside the shower stall while she was showering. Soryono obeyed, she told Ross in Indonesian, while an interpreter translated, "because I am a servant, and that is what she wanted done."

The princess had never hit her in Saudi Arabia, Soryono said, but the maid claims that changed when they got to Florida. One day, after Soryono forgot to include a pair of eyeglasses in a package sent to Saudi Arabia, her employer got angry with her and slapped her, Soryono said. Another time, she said, the princess slapped her and locked her in her room because she had walked in front of her during a shopping trip to Orlando's Florida Mall.

Soryono said she was effectively a prisoner in the princess's townhouse. She said she was seldom paid even her meager $200 salary, and rarely allowed to go out of the townhouse on her own. Unable to speak English, she thinks she would have been helpless outside the house in any case.

She said the princess threatened to have her thrown in jail when they returned to Saudi Arabia. Human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have repeatedly cited Saudi Arabia as a place where foreign domestic workers are enslaved and brutalized. Bill Schultz of Amnesty International said servants in Saudi Arabia are sometimes prosecuted for running away from their employers. "It's tantamount to slavery in many cases," he said.

Asserting Her 'Rights'

One Friday in mid-December, Soryono said, she tried to assert her rights, telling her employer they were now in America.

As the two argued at the top of the stairs, she said the princess told her she could treat her however she liked because she was a member of the Saudi royal family with a diplomatic passport. Soryono remembers answering back, "Be quiet. We are in America," and then, she said, the princess reached out with two hands and pushed her.

Soryono said she fell backward down the flight of 16 stairs, hitting her head and injuring her right knee. She ran to a neighbor's house and asked a 7-year-old girl — the only person in the house — to call 911.

Protected by Diplomatic Immunity?

When Orange County sheriff's deputies came to the townhouse, the princess denied pushing Soryono. Paramedics took Soryono to a hospital, where she was treated and discharged.

--> County investigators did not immediately charge the princess, because, they say, officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington told them — incorrectly — that the princess had diplomatic immunity, meaning U.S. laws do not apply to her.

But the investigators soon learned from the State Department that the princess did not in fact have full diplomatic immunity, and was not immune from prosecution. Three days after the alleged incident, they charged her with felony battery, a crime that can carry a prison sentence of 15 years.

The detectives discovered that the princess had gone into hiding at the Grand Cypress Resort, a luxury hotel, taking refuge in a seventh-floor suite overlooking the beautiful grounds and pool complex.

Kelly Boaz, the detective in charge of the case, admits he had never had to arrest a princess before, but says his team moved in just like they would on any other accused felon.

"She informed me that she had diplomatic immunity," Boaz said. "I informed her she did not."

The princess was handcuffed and brought to the Orange County Jail, where she was photographed, fingerprinted and locked up overnight. In the morning, a judge released her on $5,000 bail and ordered her to surrender her passport.

The princess is now believed to be somewhere in Washington, under the protection of the Saudi Embassy. The princess and embassy officials declined to speak with 20/20.

Maid Files Civil Lawsuit

Soryono has filed a civil lawsuit against the princess, seeking an undisclosed amount of damages for the abuse she says she suffered. The lawsuit describes Soryono as having a "meek disposition," but she said she is determined to stand up to her employer now.

"I dare to do that because I am right," Soryono said. "I am a person and she is a person, but the difference is that she is a princess and I am just a regular person."

The princess's Florida lawyer, Mark Schnapp, denies that she slapped Soryono or pushed her. He told 20/20 that people should examine the motivation behind the maid's lawsuit. "In a public filing, they're demanding money. ... Unfortunately, if you're a member of the royal family or someone with money, you may not even be given the benefit of the doubt," he said.

Soryono said she is suing on principle, not for money, and will not settle the case out of court. "I am not so easy as that. I ask for the laws of America to take care of who is at fault," she said.

ABCNEWS' Jill Rackmill contributed to this report.