By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK, April 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Southern California couple accused of forcing an Indonesian woman to work as an unpaid live-in maid are victims of "cultural confusion," their attorney said on Wednesday.
The case against Firas Majeed and Shatha Abbas, who are originally from Iraq, stems from misunderstandings due to money and language differences among the immigrants, defense attorney Douglas Brown told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Majeed, 44, and Abbas, 38, were arrested this month on charges they forced their housekeeper to work up to 18 hours a day without pay in their San Diego-area apartment.
"All the people involved are poor, there are least three languages involved - Bahasa Indonesian, Arabic and English - and there are cultural differences among the parties," Brown said.
"So it's a confusing scenario for all of them," he said.
The housekeeper was removed from the couple's home by agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after she slipped a hand-written note to a visiting nurse in March, according to court documents.
The note said she was being abused, and it asked for help, according to the documents.
Majeed and Abbas, who face federal charges of forced labor, trafficking and document servitude, entered pleas of not guilty last week in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
The housekeeper told authorities that since arriving in the United States in November, she had been forbidden to leave the apartment on her own except to take out the trash.
Although doors were not locked, she said she did not run away because she did not speak English and did not know where to go. Her alleged captors took away her passport, she said.
The woman said she came to the United States from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where she also was a victim of forced labor, according to documents.
In the Middle East, she said she worked 20-hour days, seven days a week, as an unpaid housekeeper, under lock and key for five years.
Her alleged captors in Dubai and the United States were members of the same family, she told authorities.
She had been recruited by an employment agency in Indonesia in 2010, she said.
Majeed and Abbas, who live with their two children and extended family, could be indicted this week or next, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Tenorio said.
If convicted, they each face the possibility of up to 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, the prosecutor said.
U.S. authorities "will not tolerate any form of human exploitation," said Dave Shaw, special agent with Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.
"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," he said in a statement.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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