Nigerian gets 11yrs for human trafficking

2011-10-14 10:02

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Atlanta - A Nigerian woman was sentenced on Thursday to more than 11 years in prison for enslaving two young women from her country to work as servants and nannies at her home, forcing them to cut her lawn by hand and beating them ruthlessly when they crossed her.

Bidemi Bello pleaded with the judge for mercy, but prosecutors said Bello's remorse didn't erase the years of suffering she inflicted on her victims. US District Judge Bill Duffey agreed, sentencing Bello to 140 months in prison and ordering that she be deported to Nigeria after she served her time.

Bello was convicted during a weeklong trial in June of luring the two women to her suburban Atlanta home with promises of sending them to school, then dashing their hopes by forcing them to work demeaning chores and beating them with wooden spoons, shoes and cords when they didn't heed her orders quickly.

"Any human trafficking crime is shocking, but the facts of this case were particularly shocking. She tricked them into coming to the US and then not only enslaved them but seemed to be gratuitously cruel," US Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said after sentencing. "It goes beyond just being a crime. This was disgusting."

The two women were both enslaved separately, but their cases mirror each other. The first victim, identified in court papers as "Laome," travelled from Nigeria to Bello's place in October 2001 when she was 17 years old. She managed to escape after more than a year when another woman concealed her in the backseat of her car and sped away.

Prosecutors said Bello then travelled to Nigeria for a second victim, "Dupe," who arrived at Bello's place in November 2004 when she was about 20. She also was enslaved for more than a year, fleeing after she squirreled away $60 to hail a taxi that took her to a nearby Methodist church, where pastors helped her to freedom.

Mouldy food

Both women told prosecutors that Bello beat them for not cleaning her home, smacked them when they talked back, and hit them when they didn't rush quickly enough to her daughter. One of the women secretly snapped a picture of the bloody lip she suffered from a beating with a disposable camera she hid, and the photo became a key piece of evidence at trial.

The women were forced to bathe using a water bucket and often ordered to eat spoiled or mouldy food even after cooking Bello a hot meal, prosecutors said. Once, Laome said, Bello made her eat her own vomit.

They were also kept busy with endless chores, washing their clothes by hand in a bucket and cutting her yard by hand even though a lawnmower and washing machine sat untouched nearby, according to court records. If they dared speak of leaving, or even contacting their families in Africa, Bello threatened to turn them into police for being in the country illegally.

"She said if I left I would go to jail. I didn't have any money, I didn't know anybody and I didn't know any English," Laome said after the hearing.

Defence attorney Suzanne Hashimi told the judge Bello grew up with an abusive family, a father who scorned her, and a mother too poor to support her. She was sexually abused and forced to have an abortion, she said, and even though Bello was sent to school in London she never recovered from the trauma.

"This normalisation of abuse is a factor the court should consider," said Hashimi, who asked the judge to sentence Bello to less than 10 years behind bars. Her client, she said, was never taught "what's acceptable and what's not acceptable."

Assistant US Attorney Susan Coppedge said Bello's traumatic upbringing "pulls at your heartstrings", but she said it was no excuse to inflict pain on two other women. She also suggested that some of Bello's background may have been fabricated.

Trauma

A weeping Bello apologised to the judge and said she took responsibility for her actions. But she said she didn't want to rot in prison while her 10-year-old daughter grew up without her.

"Please have mercy on me. I've had to struggle all my life with a family who did not want me and I went through terrible things," she said. "I'm not a terrible person."

She turned to her two victims and said, "I'm sorry." They sat still, staring unflinchingly at her.

When it was his time to speak, Duffey didn't mince words. He said Bello "forfeited her identity" and her opportunity to give her daughter a better life. And he blasted her for trying to blame her behaviour on a troubled childhood.

"You could walk out of this building and drive about one mile through communities with single mothers who were abandoned by fathers who never darken the door of this courtroom ... who did not do what you did to these two children," the judge said.

The two women, who are both 27, seemed relieved when it was over. Both have landed jobs in the US and are rebuilding their lives, but they know they may never shake the trauma of their time in Bello's house.

"I'm just happy," said Dupe. "Hopefully she'll change."

- AP
Read more on:    us  |  nigeria  |  west africa
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