A Qatari military officer and his wife who were charged with abusing two household staff have admitted guilt in a US court to lesser charges of visa fraud as part of a plea bargain, according to media reports.
Hassan Salem H. M. Al Homoud, 46, admitted the fraud while his Emirati wife, 39-year-old Zainab Al Hosani, pleaded guilty to knowing that a felony was taking place but failing to report it, Reuters quoted the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas as saying.
The couple appeared before a federal court in the Texas city of San Antonio on Friday to enter their pleas.
Al Homoud and Al Hosani will be sentenced on the lesser charges in February and are likely to be deported at that time.
The case drew attention to the difference in how such cases are handled in the US compared to GCC states, where domestic workers are generally not protected by labor laws.
Earlier this year in Qatar, an Indonesian woman was hospitalized for three days after being beaten by her employer. Even though the Indonesian embassy in Doha said police were following the case, the victim said officers never spoke to her.
Instead, she spent time in a Qatar detention center after being discharged from hospital, “forgave” her employer and left the country with QR8,500 to cover unpaid wages and her plane ticket home.
Because the woman did not press charges, any form of criminal prosecution is unlikely.
Al Homoud and Al Hosani had been arrested and charged with “engaging in forced labor” in June this year for withholding the wages and passports of two domestic employees, as well as beating one with a stick when she dug through trash in search of food.
The two victims, one of whom was from Indonesia and the other from Bangladesh, had been brought to the US from Qatar in 2014 when the couple and their two children moved to Texas.
Al Homoud, who was attending military training at a US army training camp in San Antonio, and his wife were arrested earlier this year.
An investigation found that the domestic workers were subjected to forced labor, according to an affidavit signed by a special agent assigned to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security.
A plea deal had been discussed at an October hearing, when lawyers noted it would help the victims avoid the trauma of a trial and enable them to return to their families sooner.
At the latest hearing, a federal judge said he would have handed down a harsher sentence if the domestic employees had agreed to testify:
“I want the parties to know that this court was prepared to try this case but it made it difficult when the two victims did not want to go forward,” US District Judge Orlando Garcia, visibly upset, said in court on Friday, according to Reuters.
‘Almost a complete pass’
Al Homoud and Al Hosani, who remain free on bond, could have faced up to 20 years in prison on charges of engaging in forced labor.
As part of the plea agreement, Garcia is expected to order the couple to pay each of the domestic workers $60,000, leave the US and never come back.
The judge previously expressed dismay at the amount of compensation, arguing it was too low:
“$120,000? Are you kidding me?” the judge was quoted by the San Antonio Express-News as saying in October. “That should be higher, much higher. I am so offended by that amount … You’d be giving the defendants almost a complete pass.”
In defending the proposed plea deal, the prosecutor reportedly said the government of Qatar had been consulted on the case and, in light of the accusations, had prohibited military officials from bringing domestic workers with them to foreign countries.
The case came to light in early April when an officer from the San Antonio Police Department found one of the women on Camp Bullis Road in “apparent distress.”
The woman took officers to a nearby apartment where she and the other housekeeper lived. According to a statement by the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, that flat was furnished “with only a pallet on the floor for sleeping.”
According to an affidavit, the apartment that the two victims lived in was “virtually empty,” with minimal toiletries and no toilet paper, linens, utensils, clothes, television, reading material or communication devices. The victims also did not have keys to the apartment.
Each morning, the women were transported from their apartment to work as housekeepers.
During the day, they were allowed to eat the family’s leftovers but tried to limit their intake of food and water because their access to the bathrooms in the house was “extremely limited and often forbidden.”
On one occasion, Al Hosani beat the Indonesian woman with a stick for digging in the trash in search of food, according to the affidavit.
The women were apparently working under a domestic employee contract that stated they would make about $1,500 a month.
However, the women claimed that despite repeated requests, they were never paid during their time working for the family.
According to a statement issued by the State’s Attorney’s Office in June, Al Hosani also threatened to have the workers arrested in Qatar.
During an interview with a federal agent, Al Homoud admitted to holding the victims’ passports and turned over the travel documents, along with the Indonesian woman’s cell phone, to authorities. According to the affidavit, he also admitted to not paying the women.
The defence lawyer for Al Homoud previously argued that the couple intended to pay the two victims when they returned to Qatar and that the case was actually one of cultural differences.
Attorney Gerry Goldstein was quoted as saying people with similar social backgrounds as the victims don’t need the amenities that investigators said were missing from their accommodation.
He added that they are accustomed to eating on the floor, sleeping on mats and not using toilet paper in their home country.
“It’s not as horrific conditions as one might suspect,” Goldstein reportedly said. “They live in a country where this is how it is.”