* "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 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
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
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.
Full coverage on Strauss-Kahn [ID:nDSK]
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
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
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
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
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