Sunday, September 27, 2015

Unprecedented lawsuit filed on behalf of child sex exploitation victim

Unprecedented lawsuit filed on behalf of child sex exploitation victim

Rare case seeks monetary damages for rape ordeal. 
By David Chanen Star Tribune
SEPTEMBER 23, 2015 — 8:03AM
 Panyia Vang was a 14-year-old aspiring singer living deep in Laos’ countryside in 2006 when a much older man from Minnesota flew to her home and offered her a music video audition.
After a 12-hour bus ride to the capital city of Vientiane, Thiawachu Prataya took the shy girl to a hotel room and brutally raped her.
Vang, who soon found herself pregnant and bound to a traditional Hmong marriage with Prataya, moved to Minnesota with her father. There, Prataya, then 43, threatened to deny her visitation rights to their child unless he could continue to have sex with her.
In late 2010, Vang met Twin Cities attorney Linda Miller, who immediately recognized that the strong young woman in her office had an extraordinary case that could help break through the legal roadblocks faced by young sex exploitation victims in confronting their perpetrators.
Miller, who has handled dozens of human trafficking cases in her long legal career, has filed an unprecedented lawsuit that attempts to recover monetary damages for violations of federal laws regarding child sex tourism and trafficking. She also is discussing the case with the U.S. attorney’s office in hopes of federal charges.
Miller has the support of many local and state Hmong advocacy groups that hope to end the tradition of child marriage among some in the Hmong community.
“This is just an enormous issue,” Miller said. “Her young life and innocence was crushed. It’s ruining so many people’s lives in Minnesota.”
Der Yang, Prataya’s lawyer, said it would be inappropriate for her to comment on a pending suit. The case has come before U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen, who is reviewing a summary judgment motion filed by Miller. If Ericksen’s ruling goes in Miller’s favor, the case would end with a financial award and wouldn’t go to trial. Vang has asked for $450,000 in damages, the minimum amount allowed under the statute for the three criminal counts alleged in the suit.
The legal picture
Miller’s law firm brought the suit in 2011 under Masha’s Law, a 2006 federal statute that gives children the right to sue anyone who produces, distributes or possesses their pornographic images. The act is named for a 5-year-old who was adopted from a Russian orphanage by a man who began sexually abusing her the night she arrived in the U.S. Masha’s Law also allows the plaintiff to sue anyone who has downloaded the pornographic images.
Prataya admitted to all of the elements of child sex trafficking and child sex tourism under Masha’s Law, the suit said. He lived in Minnesota and traveled to Laos in 2006, and he had repeated sexual contact with Vang that he paid for.
In court documents, Prataya claimed he didn’t know Vang was a minor. In a deposition, he said he wasn’t worried if she was 12 or 13, because that’s why he paid her family $5,000 to be his bride. He said the sex was consensual.
Miller’s suit got a boost from a 2013 federal Court of Appeals ruling that reinstated the convictions of two South Dakota men who had tried to pay for sex with minors over the Internet. The ruling now allows consumers, not just suppliers of commercial sex acts, to be prosecuted under the federal trafficking statute.
Former South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who prosecuted the case, said Miller’s suit is unique because victims rarely go after their perpetrators for financial damages. Her suit has good legal standing to succeed, he said.
Miller believes the only other civil suit filed under Masha’s Law involved Thomas White, who died in a Mexican prison in 2013 while awaiting extradition to the U.S. None of the boys he was charged with molesting in Mexico and Thailand received any money from that suit.
Offered fame, then raped
Vang’s case came to Miller’s attention after Prataya went to Laos and gained custody of Vang’s baby in 2010. Miller, who had been handling trafficking and child exploitation cases for years, also was part of the state’s first human trafficking task force in 2005.
While the circumstances of Vang’s ordeal may be unique, cases like hers are far from unusual. From 2010 to 2014, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) initiated 4,279 human trafficking investigations, made 5,852 arrests and received 3,252 grand-jury indictments that led to 2,440 convictions. Last year, 1,036 children were identified in ICE and Homeland Security child exploitation and sex tourism investigations, and ICE’s office in St. Paul was responsible for 71 indictments.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino, the Minneapolis office’s human trafficking coordinator, is part of a statewide task force of law enforcement authorities and prosecutors who meet monthly to discuss cases and issues. They also strategize about new trafficking trends on social media and the growing sophistication of traffickers, she said.
“We have handled child sex tourism cases,” she said. “We see trafficking across the state. The most vulnerable kids are exploited, such as runaways, kids in juvenile detention, foster [children] and immigrants.”
Twelve years before Prataya went to Laos in 2006, he had pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a woman for whom he was interpreting in a hospital. He had an office at a nightclub, where he received contact information for Vang’s family.
Vang, now 22, was lured to an audition for a music video by Prataya’s former wife, who called herself a movie star. Vang was offered beautiful clothes and the chance for fame, Miller said. She was able to flee the hotel after she was raped, but Prataya and some friends tracked her down and raped her again, the suit said.
“I was raped when I was 14 in Laos, and when I escaped, I was recaptured, bleeding and crying, and taken back to be raped again,” Vang said through her attorney. “I thought my body, my life and my future were ruined forever.”
Prataya has filed for bankruptcy and also has sought to have the suit dismissed. U.S. District Judge Robert Kressel ruled against him, calling Vang’s experience in Laos “heartbreaking.”
A well-known ‘secret’
Vang’s story and those of other exploited Hmong women are known to Sia Her, executive director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans. In the Hmong community, such crimes involving young girls are referred to as “international abusive marriages,” she said.
“It’s a complex issue, but we recognize how harmful and dangerous it is,” she said. “This is an open secret that everybody knows in the Hmong community.”
It takes courage for the victimized women or their children to come forward, she said. They are vulnerable to criticism because some believe that they agreed to participate in a cultural marriage and that the men are doing them a favor by bringing them to the U.S., she said.
“Many elders will say this is an airing of dirty laundry,” Her said. “Or such marriages have always been allowed for men.”
Vang always wanted Prataya to go to jail “because everything he does hurts the world,” she told Miller.
The attorney said that if she had to put her client on the stand for a trial, she would break everybody’s heart by telling the truth.
“That’s what so special about her,” she said.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Consumers and Lawmakers Take Steps to End Forced Labor in Fishing

Cambodian fishermen last year in Songkhla, Thailand. Many work in slavery-like conditions.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Federal lawmakers, State Department officials, fishing and pet food companies, and class-action lawyers are stepping up efforts to combat forced labor at sea.
Last week, a group of consumers filed a class-action lawsuit in California against Mars, accusing the company, among the biggest producers of seafood-based pet food in the world, of failing to disclose its dependence on forced labor. A similar lawsuit was filed in late August against Nestlé, also a major producer of seafood-based pet food.
Several lawmakers have also begun trying to address the problem. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, proposed legislation in August aimed at increasing transparency and accountability in corporate supply chains. The bill requires larger companies to report in their financial filings what they are doing to prevent the use of trafficked workers.
Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, who introduced similar legislation in the House,  sent a letter last week to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which monitors the oceans, urging the agency to focus not just on illegal fishing but also on preventing “trafficking and slavery in the fishing industry.”
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Weak rules, little oversight and violence on the high seas.
“I am particularly concerned by the fact that trafficking and other human rights abuses are part of the supply chain for seafood that is imported into the U.S.,” she wrote.
In taking these steps, the lawyers and lawmakers cited a recent New York Times series, The Outlaw Ocean, about lawlessness on the high seas. One of the articles focused on migrant boys and men who were sold onto fishing boats in the South China Sea, where they were held captive, sometimes for years.
Thai Union Frozen Products, Thailand’s largest seafood company, responded to the series by saying that it planned to audit all of its suppliers to check for labor abuses by December. To better track conditions on board ships, it intended to significantly reduce the number of boats from which it buys fish, company officials said. “Thai Union is completely committed to eradicating human trafficking in any and every part of our supply chain,” said Sasinan Allmand, a company spokeswoman.
In late July, Secretary of State John Kerry announced his agency’s decision to keep Thailand on the lowest tier of the State Department rankings on human trafficking, indicating that the country was not making a significant effort to combat the problem.
“We want to bring to the public’s attention the full nature and scope of a $150 billion illicit trafficking industry,” Mr. Kerry said then. “Pick up today’s New York Times, front page story about a young Cambodian boy promised a construction job in Thailand, goes across the border, finds himself held by armed men, and ultimately is pressed into service on the seas, three years at sea shackled by his neck to the boat.”
In late September, the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking, chaired by Mr. Blumenthal and Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, is scheduled to hold a briefing about the problem of forced labor in fishing. The panel plans to discuss ways that the United States government might adjust its purchasing policy to reward companies that have better policies in place to prevent labor abuses.
Nestlé’s Fancy Feast cat food was among several major brands of seafood-based pet food exported to the United States by Thai Union, theinvestigation found. Some of the fish was processed by a subsidiary, Songkla Canning Public Co., and was caught on boats using forced labor.
The two class-action lawsuits filed in the Federal District Court for the Central District of California were brought by consumers who had purchased Fancy Feast, or Iams cat food, made by Mars. The lawsuits accuse the corporations of violating consumer protection laws, including false advertising and unfair competition, by failing to disclose the use of forced labor.
“Forced labor has no place in our supply chain,” said Keith Schopp, a spokesman for Nestlé Purina, while declining to comment on the litigation. He added that his company has, however, begun working with the auditing firm Verité to investigate the problem among its suppliers in Thailand. The results of that investigation will be published this year, he said.
Allyson Park, a spokeswoman for Mars, declined to comment on the lawsuit. One of The Times’ articles focused on a Cambodian man, Lang Long, who was sold by traffickers to a Thai fishing boat, where he was shackled by the neck at times during his two years of captivity. Over the past year, Mars received more than 90,000 cartons of cat and dog food from the cannery supplied by one of the boats where Lang Long was held, according to United States Customs documents.
In response to Representative Maloney’s letter, Paul Doremus, the deputy assistant administrator for operations for the NOAA Fisheries program, said that his agency had a robust enforcement division but its mandate was to enforce laws primarily relating to illegal fishing, not human trafficking.
As fish stocks closer to shore are depleted, commercial fishing companies globally are relying more on a system called transshipment, which allows boats to venture farther out and stay at sea longer, sometimes months or years, as so-called motherships shuttle fish to land and haul supplies back. Fishing boats that depend on transshipment tend to have the worst labor abuses because they are so far out from land and few law enforcement officials patrol the high seas.
Ms. Allmand, the Thai Union spokeswoman, said that her company was ending the use of transshipment by its own fleet, except on certain vessels with observers on board. She declined to specify whether the ban extended to other fishing companies that supply Thai Union.
Human rights advocates and ocean conservationists said that while Thai Union’s shift away from transshipment was a positive development, the move did not go far enough since transshipment could still be used on boats operating outside Thai waters or on boats operated by other companies that sell to Thai Union.
“The Thai seafood industry and Thai government know what they need to do to fix these problems,” said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace. “For now, they’re sticking to half measures."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Myanmar to Bar Rohingya From Fleeing, but Won’t Address Their Plight

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SLIDE SHOW|11 Photos

For the Rohingya of Myanmar, a Hardscrabble Existence

For the Rohingya of Myanmar, a Hardscrabble Existence

CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times
SITTWE, Myanmar — The government of Myanmar says it is determined to stop the departures of migrants fleeing religious persecution in places like this bitterly divided port city, but it will not budge in its refusal to address the conditions driving the exodus across the sea.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, fled the country in recent months, setting off a regional crisis when boatloads of migrants were abandoned at sea or abused and held for ransom by traffickers.
But the government insists that most of the migrants do not belong in Myanmar, referring to them as Bengalis, and says it has no plans to alter policies that strip them of basic rights and confine more than 140,000 to a crowded, squalid government camp here.
“There is no change in the government’s policy toward the Bengalis,” U Zaw Htay, a deputy director general of the Myanmar president’s office, said in an interview this week.
Under international pressure, as crowded vessels baked and bobbed in the ocean for days with no country willing to take them in, regional leaders met in Bangkok last month, and the immediate crisis was relieved when the migrants were granted temporary refuge.
Rashid Ahmad, a 13-year-old who has no control over his arms and legs, was comforted by his mother at “plastic camp,” part of a government camp in Sittwe, Myanmar, named for the scavenged materials residents have used to improvise dwellings. Doctors said he had polio, his mother says. CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times
But any hope that Myanmar might have been persuaded to soften its position was quickly dispelled.
When a government delegation returned from the talks, the state news media hailed the officials as managing “to refute accusations that the boat people were from Myanmar.”
And those people, despite the reports of horror stories at sea, are no less desperate to leave.
“I can’t stand living here anymore,” said Nur Islam, a fisherman who has languished for two and a half years in the sprawling government encampment. “I have children, and I can’t feed them.”
Two of his six children left by boat for Malaysia this year, and although he has not heard from them, he says he is ready to go, too.
“If I get my hands on any money,” he vowed, “I’m going to Malaysia as soon as possible.”

Temporary Fixes

If the exodus has subsided for now, the reasons appear to be temporary.
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For Rohingya, Days of Waiting

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Recently the departures have abated, though the situation may be temporary. And many remain eager to leave.
 By Poypiti Amatatham, Channon Hodge and Thomas Fuller on Publish DateJune 12, 2015. Photo by Tomas Munita for The New York Times.
In one concession to international pressure, the Myanmar government said it would monitor boat traffic in an effort to crack down on human trafficking. But given the government’s desire for the Rohingya people to leave, its commitment to policing the beaches here may not last.
More to the point, perhaps, the traffickers are lying low after a crackdown on their transit camps in southern Thailand and reports of their abuses have filtered back here. Many of those who left are still unaccounted for.
Last week a man accused of being a trafficker, U Maung Hla, was beaten by a mob wielding metal rods and axes in a vigilante attack by family members of migrants held for ransom.
But perhaps the main reason the migration has slowed is the weather. The arrival of the monsoon season has made seas choppy and dangerous.
Calmer waters will return in October and November, and the traffickers will return as well, experts say, as long as demand exists.

Bamboo Huts and Raw Sewage

Since 2012, when violence erupted between Muslims and Buddhists here and Buddhist mobs set fire to Rohingya homes, the government has herded tens of thousands of Rohingya from Sittwe and other towns and villages into the camp here, an area of only several square miles.
Some 140,000 Rohingya live here in rows of flimsy bamboo huts without electricity. Raw sewage flows through open concrete drains, children are undernourished, and health care is dispensed by overwhelmed medical personnel who have no facility for treating serious ailments.
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Understanding Southeast Asia’s Migrant Crisis

About 25,000 migrants left Myanmar and Bangladesh on rickety smugglers’ boats in the first three months of 2015, according to a United Nations estimate.
The Rohingya here are barred from leaving, a rule that applies even to those who have homes just outside camp boundaries. The government has not said when, if ever, they will be allowed to return to their homes.
“If they force us to stay here longer, every last person will crawl onto boats if they have to,” said Dil Mohamad, 32, a former grocery shop owner who was forced to flee his home in Sittwe when his Rohingya Muslim neighborhood was burned by Buddhist mobs.
The Rohingya who live outside the camps, in countless villages along the border with Bangladesh, describe a different kind of imprisonment. They are closely monitored by the authorities, conscripted into forced labor and barred from travel outside their villages without permission.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship, though many say their families have lived in Myanmar since before there was a border between what was then Burma and the rest of Britain’s empire in southern Asia.
Until the government’s official policy of discrimination took hold in the early 1990s and extremist Buddhist teachings espousing hatred of Muslims swept the country, many Rohingya worked for the government as schoolteachers, firefighters and clerks.
“I’ve told the authorities many times that I am a citizen of this country and that my parents were also citizens,” said Noor Muhammad, 60, a former sergeant in the Myanmar police force who is now interned in the camp. “The government says, ‘Sit here,’ and I followed their orders. But I’m not sure how long we can remain tolerant anymore. We are at the end of our patience.”
Police officers in Sittwe confirm that Mr. Muhammad was a sergeant, but they distance themselves from him. “It is very difficult to trust the kalar,” said U Khin Maung Kyaw, a Buddhist officer, using a derogatory term for people from the Indian subcontinent. “They want to make problems. They want to stab you in the back.”

Improvised Living

Most families in the camp are almost entirely dependent on assistance from the United Nations and foreign aid agencies. The thousands who are not registered camp residents are not eligible for the United Nations rations.
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How Myanmar and Its Neighbors Are Responding to the Rohingya Crisis

Myanmar and its neighbors see the people of the Rohingya ethnic group and the seaborne trafficking of migrants in the region very differently, complicating the refugees’ plight.
Until two months ago, the government provided rice rations to the unregistered, but those have stopped. Very few people in the camp have jobs, so they survive off their savings and the kindness of others.
Mr. Islam, the fisherman, lives in a section called “plastic camp,” named for the scavenged materials the unregistered residents have used to improvise dwellings. In the shack next door, a 50-year-old man with tuberculosis can barely move from his bed. Sitting on a plastic chair outside is Rashid Ahmad, a listless 13-year-old with no control over his arms and legs. Doctors said he had polio, his mother says.
From here, a boat to anywhere looks good.
The estimated 25,000 people who fled Myanmar and Bangladesh this year departed from numerous points along the Bay of Bengal, but the main departure point for migrants here was the beach at Ohn Daw Gyi, a fishing village adjacent to the camp.
There, within full view of a police outpost, they boarded small boats that took them to larger boats waiting at sea. Camp residents say traffickers paid the police to look the other way.
The police officers at the camp have recently been reshuffled, and the new head of the police outpost, Lt. Aung Toe Win, says all boats leaving the area will be checked.
“I can’t tell you what happened before the reshuffle,” he said. “Our new instructions are that every boat needs to show permission before leaving. We won’t let any of the traffickers’ boats pass.”
Kobir Muhammad, a fisherman who was repairing a boat there one recent afternoon, said there had not been a departure of migrants in two months. “If the police don’t allow it, no one can leave,” he said.
But camp residents say that with so many people crammed into so little space and hope in such short supply, more departures are inevitable.
“There are no jobs here; there’s not enough food,” said Abdul Salam, 54, a Rohingya businessman who prospered selling dried fish before his home was burned down three years ago. “They hear that in Malaysia they can get jobs. If they can get even very menial jobs, it’s better than being here.”