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‘Sex slave’ trial starts in US

A Khaleej Times Scrutiny Special Report
Filed on June 15, 2006

AURORA (Colorado) — The trial has started of a Saudi Arabian man accused of keeping a young housemaid as a ‘slave’, whom he subdued using rape and other forms of intimidation.

Homaidan Ali Al Turki, 37, is a university educated linguist who arrived in the US in 2000 along with his wife, Sarah Khonaizan, and their four children. But, according to an FBI criminal complaint, the couple kept their Indonesian housemaid, now in her 20s, enslaved by creating ‘a climate of fear and intimidation through rape and other means.'

The housemaid slept on a mattress on the floor of the basement in the couple's home in an upscale suburb of Denver, Colorado and, prosecutors allege, over the four years of her captivity was repeatedly raped by Al Turki. The woman was paid just $2 a day for the housework and child care she performed and according to the FBI document, feared that if she did not obey the Al-Turkis she would ‘suffer serious harm’.

The alleged abuse came to light after the maid was arrested along with the Al Turkis in November 2004 due to an expired visa. After her arrest, the maid told investigators of her plight. Al Turki, who by then was running an Arabic language publishing business called Al Basheer Publications and Translations, was arrested by federal agents and charged with forced labour, domestic servitude and harbouring an illegal immigrant.

The state of Colorado separately charged him with two counts of kidnapping, 12 counts of sexual assault, extortion, theft and false imprisonment. He faces life in prison if convicted. Al Turki denies the charges.

Sarah Khonaizan pled guilty in May to one charge of theft relating to the non-payment of the housemaid's wages. In return for her guilty plea, which carries up to one year in jail and a $20,000 fine, prosecutors agreed to drop other charges of kidnapping, false imprisonment and extortion.

A month earlier in April 2006 the couple also settled a civil suit brought against them by the U.S. Department of Labor by agreeing to repay the housemaid $64,000 for her four years of service.

The case has sparked fierce debate in the U.S. with many Arab and Muslim groups branding the case a witchhunt based on a misunderstanding of Arab custom and culture and, prejudice following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Those feeling intensified when it was revealed Denver's Joint Terrorism Task Force had Al-Turki under investigation, suspecting he was “closely aligned to terrorists and may be providing material support to terrorism”.

In an interview with a Denver television station, Al Turki said there was ‘no doubt’ he was innocent. His lawyers have filed documents in his defence stating “there are Saudi Arabian customs regarding a host family’s retention of funds for their domestic servant until she leaves their service.” This, they say, explains why the housemaid was apparently paid so little.

“This is very sad, but we Muslims basically after 9/11, have been profiled,” Al Turki told Denver’s CBS4 station. “And everything that is happening to us or every single Muslim in the community basically because we are guilty, no matter what.”

Supporters have created several websites in support of Al Turki, who is a prominent member of Colorado’s Saudi community, and ensure that the court is packed with supporters for every hearing.

The housemaid, who has now married and lives in her own apartment, wept during an earlier hearing as she described her love for Al Turki’s wife and the children.

“I have been working for my boss, Mr Al Turki, for a long time, and I love their kids and I love Mama Sarah,” she said through an interpretor. She insisted she had told the truth to investigators. “I am Muslim, so I don’t want to change my story. That isn't going to work, so I want to tell the truth ... I want to help my boss because of my God and I am a Muslim believer, and I will tell whatever happened to me and I would not change the story,” the Rocky Mountain News newspaper reported her as saying.

Later, she told the court: “I want to help before something happens to my boss ... but mainly my heart is only for his wife.”

The Khaleej Times is not identifying the woman because of the sexual assault allegations.

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