Hillary Clinton speaks in February, 2011, to the Interagency Taskforce to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, about the need to hold foreign diplomats accountable in cases of alleged human rights abuses. U.S. State Department
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Four women claim in a civil lawsuit that a high-ranking Qatari diplomat in the United States, and his family, forced them to work around the clock for little pay while enduring emotional abuse and — according to one woman — sexual assault.

The human trafficking lawsuit was filed March 25 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against Essa Mohamed Al Mannai, Qatar’s second-highest ranking diplomat in the United States. The case has reopened debate over a problem that has vexed U.S. government agencies charged with making sure foreign officials, who enjoy the cover of diplomatic immunity, still obey U.S. laws and labor standards.

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The lawsuit has also renewed criticism of the U.S. State Department, accused by human rights activists of not doing enough to address persistent complaints of abuse by visiting foreign officials.

Each year, about 3,500 visas are issued to domestic workers employed by diplomats and officials at international organizations like the World Bank. Between 2000 and 2008, 42 cases of alleged abuse of these laborers were discovered by the federal Government Accountability Office,which surveyed several agencies and non-governmental organizations. The 2008 report, titled “U.S. Government’s Efforts to Address Alleged Abuse of Household Workers by Foreign Diplomats with Immunity Could Be Strengthened,” outlined factors that complicate investigations of abuse allegations — with diplomatic immunity at the forefront. Recommendations in the report to were directed to the Departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security.

The State Department “is ultimately stuck in a situation where they have to support diplomatic immunity because they want reciprocity” for U.S. diplomats in other countries, said Janie Chuang, a professor at the Washington College of Law at American University.

In response to the GAO findings, Congress beefed up the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, giving the State Department improved tools against trafficking while avoiding the dilemma of diplomatic immunity. That act allows the State Department to block visas to domestic workers seeking employment by diplomats from countries or international organizations with histories of abuse. A State Department spokesperson said the agency has taken some steps to address the problem, but refused to elaborate.

“The State Department could be doing more,” Chuang said in an interview with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

In 2010 Chuang published a law review article, “Achieving Accountability for Migrant Domestic Worker Abuse,” which questioned the State Department’s handling of accusations of human trafficking against diplomats.

“In addition to its failure to provide remedies, the State Department inexplicably has refused to utilize even the powers it already possesses to hold diplomats accountable for trafficking abuses,” Chuang wrote.

Embarrassing Rogue Diplomats

The apparent lack of tougher action against alleged human trafficking by diplomats also calls into question recent claims by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the U.S. doesn’t tolerate rights abuses by visiting officials.

“Whether they’re diplomats or national emissaries of whatever kind, we all must be accountable for the treatment of the people that we employ,” Clinton said on February 1, in an address to the Interagency Taskforce to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Diplomatic Immunity, granted by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to protect foreign officials and ease their work abroad, makes it nearly impossible to hold accountable allegedly abusive diplomats. The lawsuit against Qatar’s Essa Al Mannai may be thrown out because of that immunity.

The lawsuit by Al Mannai’s domestic employees marks the second round of legal trouble in less than a year for the Qatari diplomatic team in Washington: In April 2010, Qatari diplomat Mohamed Yaaqob Al Madadi attempted to smoke a cigarette in an airplane lavatory during flight. When he was approached by air marshals, he allegedly joked that he was lighting his shoes on fire. In the end, two fighter jets were dispatched to accompany the United Airlines flight until it landed in Denver.

Al Madadi returned to Qatar the next day, amid State Department threats to place a “persona non grata” label on Al Madadi. That tag is one way U.S. officials have handled rogue diplomats. It requires a troublesome diplomat to leave the country, or else lose diplomatic immunity.

“At the end the day, all we have is the potential of embarrassing the diplomat or the diplomat’s country,” Chuang said.

The State Department this week declined to say how many — and why — foreign diplomats have been pushed out of the country.

In another case, the Lebanese ambassador in Washington on Tuesday successfully invoked diplomatic immunity against charges of labor abuse brought last year by his former housekeeper.

The State Department each year submits a report to Congress on court cases that involve diplomatic immunity. It refused to provide those reports to ICIJ. However, the 2008 GAO report cites one case in which the State Department asked a country to waive the immunity of a diplomat’s wife so she could be prosecuted. The diplomat’s home country refused the request, and the couple left the U.S.

For some time the State Department has issued a yearly Trafficking in Persons report, which it touts as “the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts.” The report ranks countries in tiers. Tier 1 holds countries working hardest to combat human trafficking; Tier 3 the negligent governments. Qatar has been in Tier 2 for the last two years. In 2008 it was in Tier 3.

Just One Example

Now a new controversy over human trafficking by foreign diplomats centers on an alleged pattern of actions by Mohamed Al Mannai’s family in Qatar and in the Washington, D.C., area. (The family lived in a $1 million, six-bedroom home in Vienna, Va., a 30-minute drive from the Qatar embassy on M Street in downtown Washington.)

In Qatar, Al Mannai’s mother and brother “recruited the women from their home countries [the Philippines and Indonesia] using Qatar-based labor-brokering agencies,” according to the complaint. When the women arrived in in Qatar, the Al Mannai family allegedly “arranged for fraudulent visas at the U.S. Embassy, made travel arrangements, and sent the women to the United States.”

In their contracts, the women were promised $7.25 an hour for 40-hour work weeks in the United States. They ended up making as little as 55-cents an hour for being on duty “around the clock,” according to the complaint.

What started out as an enticing deal for the women — who, the complaint said, “bore significant responsibility to provide financial support to their children, husbands, parents and/or extended families” back home — became a workplace nightmare. They claim they were made responsible for every detail of the household operation, while facing verbal, emotional and even sexual abuse. One woman, “the house keeper,” cooked, cared for three of the family’s children and cleaned the almost 5,000 square foot home. The other woman, “the nanny,” was allegedly required to always be with a fourth and seriously ill child, performing medical procedures, sleeping with the child – or on the child’s bedroom floor at night – and then staying with the child in a Georgetown University hospital room for “months at a time.”

“The nanny was not permitted to leave the hospital ward for any reason,” according to the complaint. “Defendant Essa Al Mannai called the telephone next to the hospital bed periodically to make sure that the nanny was at her post.”

Essa Al Mannai’s wife allegedly berated the women with profanities and allowed her children to repeat the taunts. The couple told the women that the United States was a “dangerous country” and that they would be harmed if they left the family, according to the complaint.

In the complaint, lawyers for the women also claim the employees feared the abuse would escalate – including the fears of one woman who alleged that Essa Al Mannai had sexually assaulted her.

Finally, with the help of two unidentified “Good Samaritans,” according to the complaint, the four women fled the residence in the dark of night, two of them through a window in June 2010 and the other two through a basement door in December 2010.

The plaintiffs are represented pro bono by the Jenner & Block law firm. Lawyers there declined comment for this story.

The Embassy of Qatar did not return requests for an interview. As of publication, the defendants have no attorney registered with the court, and no response has yet been filed. No hearings or appearances have been scheduled.

The State Department’s calling out some countries over alleged abuses shows “that bringing servants into the U.S. and abusing them is not going to be tolerated,” said Christopher Burgess, a human rights activist and blogger.

To centralize cases and work with victims, Clinton established an anti-trafficking unit in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. That office did not respond to a request for interview.

In her February address on the problem, Clinton said: “We will also begin an annual briefing for visiting diplomats and their domestic workers as part of an ongoing effort … to protect domestic workers brought here by diplomats and raise awareness within the diplomatic community.”

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