Am. Samoa Human Trafficking Victims Mostly Relatives From Samoa

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Deputy AG says culture is being ‘adulterated’ to permit ‘slave’ conditions

APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, March 16, 2014) – American Samoa's Deputy Attorney General, Mitzie Jessop, says the majority of human trafficking victims in the territory are citizens from Samoa.

She claims they are being mistreated by their Pago-based relatives. Ms. Jessop says that culture, which should have stopped this from happening, has been hijacked.

"Unfortunately we do have people here that are taking advantage of that situation," she said.

"They're adulterating our culture so that they are using their own family members as slaves to do their domestic work without compensating them and without taking care of them."

A bill outlawing human trafficking was officially endorsed by the American Samoa Fono and has now been sent to the Governor, who proposed the law. Last year, an American Samoan man was charged with sexually assaulting three women, including a minor, who had been brought from Samoa to do domestic work. Some residents have complained that bringing relatives from Samoa to do domestic work is a long standing practice, and shouldn't be seen as trafficking. Earlier this week, Ms. Jessop said she was "excited" at the passage of the bill, after years of attempts over more than a decade.

"I know that there might be a perception that human trafficking does not exist here in the Pacific," she said.

"Unfortunately since I’ve been in the Attorney-General’s office, I have seen a lot of cases that have come through our office and I cannot prosecute those cases because I have no laws." Ms. Jessop said a person convicted of human trafficking will face serious jail time, and offences against minors will carry more severe sentences. The case was given fresh impetus last year when police arrested an American Samoan man for sexually abusing three females from Savai’i, including a minor.

Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga, who initially proposed the bill, is expected to review it when he returns to the territory from Honolulu. Ms. Jessop said she also feels relieved about the bill passing because it gives prosecutors another tool in addressing human trafficking cases.

Ms. Jessop drafted the bill and testified during legislative hearings. "Since I've been in the attorney general's office, I have seen a lot of cases that have come through our office that I cannot prosecute those cases because I have no laws," she said.

The bill makes human trafficking illegal under penalty of five to 10 years in prison, with a mandatory 10 years if the trafficking involves a minor, Ms. Jessop said. She said prosecutors previously had to depend on other statutes to prosecute cases where there is clear evidence of human trafficking.

The territorial Senate approved the measure last week. It passed the House late last year. Ipu Avegalio-Lefiti, an advocate against domestic and sexual violence, said the law will raise awareness about behaviors that can finally be identified as human trafficking. "It is empowering to know that these behaviors are now criminal activities.

"The lack of this bill just encourages many of our people and business owners to feel, that it is their right or their duties, to hold persons or families in domestic bondage or slavery," said Mrs. Avegalio-Lefiti, vice-chairwoman of the Multi-Disciplinary Team, an advocate group against family violence. "The bill was slow in coming, thank God it has finally arrived."

The bill also mandates a human trafficking task force to collect data on human trafficking and recommend policies and procedures. The bill would become law in 60 days if the governor signs it. Earlier this month, the Senate held its last hearing into the measure. Senators raised questions about the impact of ifoga, or traditional apologies, on sentencing. The Fono’s legal counsel Henry Kappel testified for the bill, stating it is very important as the territory has a history of human slavery.

"This particular bill will give the prosecutors and judiciary a tool to control and hopefully remove human trafficking," Kappel noted. Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Soliai Tuipine, asked Jessop what part the traditional ifoga for a defendant would play in this particular law. Ms. Jessop stated there is part of the statute where a traditional apology would have weight with the courts when they hand down sentencing.

The bill proposes that any person who deprives or violates the personal liberty of another with intent to obtain forced labour or service, or to engage in a commercial sex act, or both is guilty of human trafficking as a Class B felony. However, trafficking of a minor would be a Class A felony, which carries a minimum sentence of ten years in prison — meaning that despite the traditional apology — if it’s a minor, it is mandatory to serve 10 years in jail. One of the bill's supporters, territorial Rep. Taotasi Archie Soliai, said the bill is a good first step to ensure disgraces of the past aren't repeated.

"In our not-too-distant past, our local community was tainted and ridiculed in the most horrific cases of human trafficking in the history of the United States, by the profiteering acts of a mindless few," Soliai said.

In one case, the South Korean owner of the now defunct Daewoosa Samoa garment factory and three Samoan employees were convicted in federal court of enslaving more than 200 workers from Vietnam, most of them women.

This was reported at the time in 2001 as the largest human trafficking case in the history of the United States. Soliai said that while the territory's Constitution prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, the new bill criminalizes trafficking and offers relief and support services for victims.

With reports from Samoa News, Radio New Zealand International, Radio Australia and the Associated Press.

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