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El Cajon couple charged in 'modern day slavery' case

El Cajon couple charged in 'modern day slavery' case
An agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

In what federal authorities described as a case of "modern day slavery," an Iraqi family with ties to Southern California has been accused of holding an Indonesian woman against her will and forcing her to work 20-hour days for little or no pay.

Federal prosecutors announced Friday that Firas Majeed, 44, and Shatha Abbas, 38, of El Cajon were arrested and charged with trafficking a woman for forced labor and holding her personal documents to keep her from returning to her home country. They face at least 20 years in prison if convicted.

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"[The] arrests bring to light the sad reality of modern day slavery," said David Shaw, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego in a statement. "HSI will not tolerate any form of human exploitation. Forced labor, which often involves individuals who are held in isolation, degraded, and most alarming – stripped of their basic human freedom, has no place in a modern society."

According to the criminal complaint, the woman's servitude began in 2010, when she turned to an employment agency in Indonesia to find her work in Dubai. The company put her in touch with an Iraqi doctor, who enlisted her to care for his family in Dubai under a two-year contract.

There, the woman cooked, cleaned and took care of the family's kids for 20 hours a day every day. The homeowner locked the doors and windows when he left and didn't allow the woman, who goes by the initials W.M. in court documents, to leave except to take out the trash, prosecutors allege.

The man's family sent money on W.M.'s behalf to W.M.'s mother, but the payments were infrequent and sometimes went years without being made, authorities say. After her two-year contract ended and W.M. said she wanted to go home, her employer said she'd have to fund the trip herself, but she couldn't because she had never been paid, prosecutors say.

One day about a year later, the homeowner forgot to lock the front door when he left and W.M. seized the opportunity to escape. She took a taxi from the Dubai home to an Indonesian consulate, authorities said. But her employer found her there and convinced consular officials to allow him to take W.M. back under the promise she'd go home three months later. But that never happened, prosecutors contend.

Instead, W.M. worked her grueling 20-hour-a-day schedule for an additional two years. In 2015, her employer told her she was going to join the family in the United States for two months to care for her boss' ailing father.

The family filled out her immigration paperwork, which indicated she would work only five days a week for eight hours a day – a regular 40-hour work week. But once in the United States in late 2015, W.M.'s unforgiving work schedule continued like it had in Dubai, prosecutors said.

In a statement, federal officials explained the type of psychology that keeps a person in modern slave-like conditions.

"Victims of labor trafficking are often overwhelmed by fear, and they fail to report crimes against them. Frequently victims are unfamiliar with U.S. culture. They may be unaware of their rights or may have been intentionally misinformed about rights in this country. Many don't speak English, and are unable to communicate with service providers, police or others who might be able to help them," the statement said.

In W.M.'s case, her plea for help came in the form of a note last month. The woman handed off a note to a nurse who visited the home in which W.M. indicated she "needed help and was being abused at work," according to the criminal complaint. Someone was able to translate the note, which led federal investigators to visit the El Cajon home where W.M. worked.

In an interview during which she was separated from her employers, W.M. said she wanted authorities' help. Officials took W.M. away from the home and eventually arrested Majeed and Abbas. The family said they had no documentation of how much W.M. should be paid for her years of work, but that one of them was "mentally keeping track of how much W.M. was owed," the complaint alleges.

Majeed and Abbas are due back in court April 21 for a preliminary hearing.

In 2013, Orange County prosecutors accused a Saudi princess of a similar practice but the charges were eventually dropped.

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