Strauss-Kahn case raises issue of diplomat abuse in U.S.
* "Diplomatic immunity means diplomatic impunity"
* Allegations range from near-slavery to rape
* Victims are maids, nannies, cooks and housekeepers
By Brian Grow
ATLANTA, May 18 (Reuters) - The case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is an extreme example of alleged sexual assault by an elite member of the international community. But the charges against him also shine a light on how diplomats and international officials have been accused of abusing maids or nannies in the United States, and have largely escaped prosecution.
Foreign diplomats have been the subject of at least 11 civil lawsuits and one criminal prosecution related to abuse of domestic workers in the last five years, according to a Reuters review of U.S. federal court records. The allegations range from slave-like work conditions to rape, and the vast majority of the diplomats in these cases avoided prison terms and financial penalties.
Strauss-Kahn, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, was charged on Sunday with sexually assaulting a hotel maid. He does not have full diplomatic immunity, but IMF rules grant him immunity limited to acts performed in his "official capacity." He was denied bail Monday and sent to jail in New York. He did not enter a plea, and his lawyer said he intends to plead not guilty.
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A common theme in many of the incidents involving alleged abuse of maids and nannies is the elevated legal status of the foreign officials, which some experts say can lead to an improper sense of superiority and make them believe they are unaccountable. Also, most of the alleged victims come from countries where women have few rights, making them easy prey. "In short, diplomatic immunity means diplomatic impunity," says Mark Lagon, former head of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
Even when judges in the United States have ruled against diplomats, the officials have recourse to another option most other defendants do not: They can simply leave the country.
And in many cases, despite pleas from the State Department for action, government officials in the diplomats' home countries do not pursue sanctions. "There's no accountability," said Janie Chuang, an assistant professor at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington. "You can totally get away with it."
The IMF said its immunity provisions are not applicable in Strauss-Kahn's case because he was visiting New York on personal business. Had he been able to leave the United States and fly to his native France, his fate likely would have turned on a different issue -- extradition. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty, and there is some troubled recent history between the United States and France.
"Two words: Roman Polanski," said Martina Vandenberg, a partner with law firm Jenner & Block in Washington and an expert in abuse cases involving foreign diplomats. She was referring to Polish-French film director Roman Polanski, who has avoided prosecution in the United States for more than 20 years on charges of having sex with a minor.
In July, 2008, a lawsuit was filed against an attache in the Embassy of Kuwait, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Al Naser, and his family, parts of which foreshadowed the allegations against Strauss-Kahn. Their former maid, Regina Leo, an Indian immigrant, alleged that she was forced to work as much as 18 hours per day and was sexually abused. According to court documents, on one occasion in 2005, Leo said that Al Naser "forcibly embraced and pinned (Leo), twisting her arm to control her, and then began kissing and fondling her ... Despite (Leo's) resistance, (Al Naser) forced himself upon her and raped her."
Al Naser did not respond to the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, and is believed to have left the United States. He could not be reached, and a spokesman for the Embassy of Kuwait declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Another case, filed in April 2007 by a Tanzanian maid against Alan Mzengi, a minister-counselor at the Tanzanian Embassy, and his wife, Stella, helped spark an inquiry into alleged abuse by foreign diplomats in the United States. A July, 2008, study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 42 employees of foreign diplomats alleged they had been abused. The actual number was probably higher, the GAO found, because domestic workers are often fearful of reporting abuse.
The maid in the Tanzanian case, Zipora Mazengo, alleged that the Mzengis held her as "a virtual prisoner in their residence, stripping her of her passport, refusing to permit her to leave the house unaccompanied." According to the suit, which was filed in federal court in Washington, they paid her nothing for four years and forced her to work in their catering business. She claimed she escaped after making a desperate plea for help to a customer of the catering business, who provided cab fare.
A U.S. magistrate judge awarded Mazengo more than $1 million in back pay and attorneys' fees. Alan Mzengi moved to cancel the award, arguing "it was not necessary to respond because he was a diplomat" with immunity under the Vienna Convention. In April 2008, a federal judge denied the motion in part, finding that the Mzengis' catering business was exempt from diplomatic immunity. But instead of paying the award, the Mzengis left the country.
A December 2009 State Department cable made available by Wikileaks, and provided to Reuters by a third party, shows the U.S. government has asked the Tanzanian government to investigate the case. "While payment of the lost wages to Ms. Mazengo is our first priority, we also hope that any diplomat who has treated his domestic staff in such an abusive manner would face appropriate sanction upon his return home," the cable said. In an e-mail, a State Department official said discussions with the Tanzanian government are ongoing. The Tanzanian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
The State Department has said it plans to get tough on alleged abuse of domestic workers by foreign diplomats. "Whether they're diplomats or national emissaries of whatever kind, we all must be accountable for the treatment of the people that we employ," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech on Feb. 1 to the Interagency Taskforce to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
EXEMPTION FROM IMMUNITY
The Vienna Convention, ratified by the United States in 1972, contains an exemption from immunity for "action relating to any professional or commercial activity exercised by the diplomatic agent in the receiving State outside his official functions." But that exemption did not protect Araceli Montuya, a former maid in the household of Lebanese Ambassador Antoine Chedid. On April 26, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington threw out a case in which Montuya alleged that Chedid and his wife underpaid and verbally abused her. The judge's decision relied, in part, on a State Department filing in a separate case, which found that when diplomats hire domestic workers, "they are not engaging in 'commercial activity' as that term is used in the Diplomatic Relations Convention."
In a rare criminal case that began as an FBI investigation into alleged domestic worker abuse, a World Bank economist from Tanzania -- who, like Strauss-Kahn, qualifies for only limited immunity related to official duties -- pleaded guilty in March, 2010, to two counts of making false statements. The economist, Anne Margreth Bakilana, hired a Tanzanian woman, Sophia Kiwanuka, to work in her home in Falls Church, Virginia, and improperly withheld Kiwanuka's wages and threatened to send her back to Tanzania, according to court records. Unaware that she had been taped by Kiwanuka at the request of the FBI, Bakilana then lied to federal investigators about her statements. She was sentenced to two years probation and fined $9,400. A civil case is ongoing in federal court in Washington. Jonathan Simms, an attorney for Bakilana, said he believed she was not longer in the United States. A World Bank spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Domestic workers continue to allege abuse by foreign diplomats. On March 25, four former cooks and housekeepers for Essa Mohammed Al Manai, a senior Qatari diplomat, filed a civil lawsuit alleging they were paid less than 70 cents per hour and "forced to work around the clock" at Al Manai's six-bedroom home in Bethesda, Maryland. The suit also claimed that Al Manai sexually assaulted one of the women.
Al Manai could not be reached for comment, and the Embassy of Qatar did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Brian Grow; Editing by Amy Stevens and Eddie Evans)