Egyptian citizens Mervat Tolan, 52, and Nabil Talaat, 55 were indicted by a federal grand jury for forcing an Indonesian mother and daughter to work as domestic workers in their former Virginia residence, without breaks and for less than minimum wage, subject to threats of arrest, imprisonment, and deportation. Both women were forced to engage in sexual conduct with Talaat. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) is representing the mother, “S.S.” (as she is referred to in the indictment), as she cooperates with federal authorities as a witness in the criminal proceedings.
Tolan, who worked for the UAE Embassy during the period of 2006 to 2011, and her husband, Talaat, were charged in a 17-count indictment. If convicted, they each face a maximum term of five years in prison for each count of conspiracy to commit forced labor, unlawful conduct, and false statement; 10 years in prison for each count of visa fraud, conspiracy to harbor and conceal an alien, and alien harboring; and 20 years in prison for each count of forced labor.
“Our client was contracted to receive three to four times as much as she actually received,” said Ivy Suriyopas, who leads AALDEF’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative. “Then with tactics of intimidation and isolation, she was kept like a prisoner in this couple’s home, while she and her daughter were forced to work 15 hours a day and engage in sexual conduct. It is deeply troubling how high the prevalence of forced labor and abuse of domestic workers is among immigrant women.”
Forced Labor, Imprisonment, and Sexual Assault
Tolan and Talaat imposed a number of rules for the purpose of isolating S.S. and her daughter. The victims were prohibited from conversing in any language other than Arabic, from speaking to the neighbors, and from leaving the residence alone. The defendants confiscated their passports and threatened S.S. with imprisonment if she left the house.
On at least one occasion, S.S. was denied medical treatment. In addition, Talaat forced her to give him massages while he was naked, and forced her daughter to perform oral sex on at least three occasions, according to the indictment.
“Women and children in these situations all too often suffer such forms of abuse,” said Suriyopas. “The few protections afforded under our federal and state laws for victims only make them more dependent on their abusers and vulnerable to exploitation.”
S.S. and her daughter managed to escape in 2009. The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) of the U.S. Department of State’s newly formed Human Trafficking Unit began investigating Tolan and Talaat because of reports of other foreign domestic workers who had fled their residence in the past. This led DSS to track down S.S. and her daughter and proceed with a criminal investigation.
“While there are many reports of forced labor by diplomats, criminal charges are rare because of diplomatic immunity, even against former diplomats,” said Suriyopas. “In this case, the fact that the U.S. Attorney is indicting Tolan and Tolaat is a good first step in protecting victims and sending the message to other perpetrators that they cannot engage in this type of abuse and escape with impunity.”
Suriyopas, who began representing S.S. after the DSS contacted her, commends the Unit for their work on this case, but noted that it is preferable for trafficking survivors to be accorded legal representation at the beginning of an investigation.
“Navigating the criminal justice system is challenging for anyone, let alone a trafficking victim,” said Suriyopas. “For helping them assist and understand the criminal investigation, their needs for services, and the possibility of civil suits, trafficking victims should be able to access legal representation to protect their rights from the beginning.”
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