Woman convicted in US forced labor case

(AP) - A Togolese woman accused of forcinggirls from Africa to work in New Jersey hair braiding salons for nopay has been convicted of human trafficking and visa fraud in acase her lawyer says highlighted

News 12 Staff

Oct 14, 2009, 11:24 PM

Updated 5,392 days ago

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(AP) - A Togolese woman accused of forcinggirls from Africa to work in New Jersey hair braiding salons for nopay has been convicted of human trafficking and visa fraud in acase her lawyer says highlighted African cultural norms that failedto translate in America.
Prosecutors argued that Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, called "Sister"by the women she oversaw, helped bring at least 20 girls betweenthe ages of 10 and 19 from the West African nations of Togo andGhana on fraudulent visas to New Jersey starting in 2002.
They said she manipulated the impoverished young women, whoaspired to live better lives in America, and kept them inslavery-like conditions while stealing all their pay - even tips asmeager as fifty cents.
Afolabi's lawyer, Bukie Adetula, countered that his client wasconsidered a benevolent mother figure and revered community leader- both in her native Togo and New Jersey. He said she was known forlending people money and aiding young women to escape theirpoverty-stricken homeland to learn a marketable skill in America.
"I don't think the jury quite got it, the whole essence of thedefense that this was cultural; the argument that they (Afolabi)brought Togo to America," Adetula said.
He spoke outside the Newark federal courtroom following aunanimous guilty verdict on all 22 counts, which was returned justhours after the jury began deliberations.
During the monthlong trial, prosecutors outlined a scheme theysay Afolabi and her ex-husband and son - who have pleaded guilty -used to keep the young women tightly controlled.
They said the women were beaten, psychologically abused and, insome cases, sexually abused, while being kept from phoning home,contacting friends or family, or accessing their passports andother documents.
Adetula said what the U.S. government called slave-likesupervision was merely a West African custom of protecting younggirls by making sure they were tightly supervised, especially in aforeign country where they didn't know the customs or the language.
Afolabi, who alternated throughout the trial between westernwear and traditional African dress, sat shackled at the ankles withher head bowed much of the time, listening through headphones to asimultaneous interpreter in Ewe, her native tongue.
She wept often throughout the proceedings, especially duringdescriptions of her former husband's alleged sexual relations withseveral of the women, some of them underage.
Afolabi, who her lawyer said has been jailed since her 2007arrest, faces up to 20 years in prison when she's sentenced inJanuary.


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