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Togolese guilty of trafficking girls from Togo and Ghana

child trafficking

child trafficking

After deliberating less than five hours, a federal jury on Wednesday convicted a West African woman of running a human-trafficking operation that smuggled girls from Togo and Ghana and forced them to work without pay at hair-braiding salons in New Jersey.

Akouavi Kpade Afolabi silently wept and bowed her head as the jury foreman announced she was guilty of all 22 counts, including conspiracy to commit forced labor, smuggle illegal aliens and visa fraud.

The once-prosperous jewelry and textile merchant recruited more than 20 girls and young women from impoverished African villages with the promise of a better life in America, authorities said. But once the women arrived, Afolabi forced them to braid hair for up to 14 hours a day at salons in Newark and East Orange in a case investigators equated to modern-day slavery.

“The evidence presented at trial revealed that these young women — some as young as 10-years old — endured unconscionable indignities,” U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said. “The defendant ruled over her victims with threats, violence, even voodoo curses.”

The trial underscored the pervasive problem of human trafficking in New Jersey, where crowded highways, ports and large immigrant communities make it easy to ship and conceal victims, authorities said.

During four weeks of testimony, several victims told jurors how Afolabi confiscated their passports, beat them and used a voodoo ritual to frighten them into believing they would go insane if they escaped. They were barred from attending school, learning English, making friends or dating. Several were sexually assaulted by Afolabi’s ex-husband and her son, who have both pleaded guilty.

“Why didn’t you run away?” Shana W. Chen, an assistant U.S. attorney, asked one of the victims. “I didn’t know anyone to run to,” said the witness, Sroda Xedagbui, now 18.

Afolabi’s lawyer, Olubukola O. Adetula, argued the charges stemmed from prosecutors’ ignorance of West African culture. In essence, he said, Afolabi ran an apprenticeship program, plucking the girls from poverty and teaching them a trade so they could find prosperity in America. She treated the girls, who ranged in age from 10 to 19, as if they were her daughters and imposed the same strict rules found in most Togolese homes, he said.

“I don’t think the jury quite got it,” Adetula said. “A lot of what took place was cultural … But I respect the jury’s decision.”

Afolabi faces up to 20 years in prison for several of the charges, but prosecutors could argue for more time. U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares scheduled her sentencing for Jan. 21. Her lawyer said he planned to appeal.

Afolabi grew up poor in Togo but found success amid the teeming markets of Lomé, the nation’s capitol. She built two compound-like homes in the coastal city’s sprawling neighborhoods, where she ran a virtual “visa-fraud school,” coaching girls to trick embassy officials into believing they were spouses or children of people who won visas through a lottery program, said Nancy Hoppock, deputy criminal chief for the U.S. attorney’s office.

Afolabi sat silently through most of the trial, listening to translators repeat testimony in her native language, Ewe. She raised her voice only once, screaming at her ex-husband, Lassissi Afolabi, when he admitted on the witness stand to forcing two of the women to have sex with him.

Afolabi began smuggling girls into New Jersey as early as 2002, authorities said. She has been in custody since being arrested in 2007, when a victim told her story to agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“ICE aggressively targets criminals who exploit or victimize vulnerable individuals who are looking for a better life in the United States,” said Peter T. Edge, head of ICE’s office of investigations in Newark.

During brief interviews today, jurors said the quick verdict stemmed from the victims’ convincing testimony. Adetula’s cultural argument simply didn’t stack up, they said.

“There is no real cultural misunderstanding about forcing someone to work and not paying them,” said one juror, who declined to give his name.

Source: modernghana.com

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