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Diplomats in US abused immunity to mistreat domestic workers: report

July 29, 2008

NEW YORK: Federal investigators have uncovered numerous cases of foreign diplomats mostly in New York and Washington, D.C. who abused their domestic workers without fear of prosecution because of diplomatic immunity, according to a government report scheduled to be released here on Tuesday.

The level of cruelty of some of the allegations appears similar to those recently uncovered in the human-trafficking prosecution of Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani, the Long Island business couple convicted of abusing two Indonesian maids.

At least 42 cases of suspected abuse by diplomats including allegations of forced labour, human trafficking and physical abuse have been uncovered in the past eight years, the Government Accountability Office study found, according to people who have seen summaries of the document.

GAO officials wouldn’t release the report in advance of its scheduled unveiling. But congressional staffers familiar with the report’s contents said the diplomats suspected of the abuses were assigned to various embassies and United Nations missions. In some instances the officials were involved with such agencies as the World Bank, said the staffers, who added that the report doesn’t identify specific countries involved.

Juhu Thukral, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center in Manhattan who helps trafficking victims, said domestic workers represent the largest number of victims in trafficking cases and their plight is exacerbated by physical and language isolation.But while the victims in the Sabhnani case saw their employers prosecuted and were able to file lawsuits, foreign diplomats who abuse domestic workers are insulated from criminal prosecution and most lawsuits under the Vienna Convention, the international treaty ratified here in 1961 that provides diplomatic immunity.

Earlier this month, Marichu Suarez Baoanan, 39, sued the former chief of the Philippines mission to the United Nations, Lauro Liboon Baja, Jr., in federal court in Manhattan. In her complaint, Baoanan said Baja and his family lured her from the Philippines and subjected her to forced labour at the official residence. But in court papers, Baja’s attorneys argue that he is protected from the lawsuit by the Vienna Convention.

The GAO did the study after Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the agency in May 2007 to look into the issue. About 2,000 domestic workers are granted special visas each year to work in the homes of diplomats, the senators said.

“We are concerned about the lack of effective measures to protect against diplomats’ abuse of domestic workers and to ensure such workers have enforceable rights,” Durbin and Coburn said in their request to the GAO.

Vania Leveille, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, acknowledged that diplomatic immunity was a big stumbling block.

The GAO wants the State Department to keep better records of allegations, initiate spot checks of diplomatic domestic workers here and have US consular officials do better screening of visa applicants, said congressional officials.

A spokeswoman for the United Nations said on Friday that diplomats attached to the various missions aren’t UN employees. A spokesman for the World Bank was unavailable for comment.—Dawn/ The LAT-WP News Service (c) Newsday