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June 19th, 2013
06:36 PM ET

Domestic slavery in our nation's capital

Slavery was outlawed in the United States in the 19th century.

However, the State Department says it still exists in what sometimes is called diplomatic slavery.

In 2009, Ambassador Luis CdeBaca was appointed by President Barack Obama to create solutions at the State Department for ending human trafficking and advocate for change.

A State Department report this week on human trafficking shows the problem  getting worse overall in a number of countries, including Russia and China.

CdeBaca gave an exclusive interview to CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” to discuss the issue and touched on the issue of diplomatic slavery.

The State Department would not comment on the number of diplomatic trafficking cases, saying they are still under investigation.

But the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, looked into the issue in 2008.

It found more than 42 domestic workers alleging they were abused by their foreign diplomat employers since 2000.

The actual numbers of victims are likely higher, the GAO said.

And there are allegations it occurs in the nation’s capital as well.

"It happens just miles from the White House here in Washington D.C.," CdeBaca said.

“I think we like to think that slavery is what happens in the shadows. As a profession, we hear way too many stories around the world of diplomats who think that they have carte blanche to treat their servants badly,” said CdeBaca.

Rosemery Martell said she was a victim of diplomatic slavery.

Born and raised in Peru, she was brought to the United States by a Peruvian diplomat and his wife after he offered her a job to take care of his home.

But that job turned into a nightmare where she said she worked 18 hours a day and claims she was sexually assaulted.

"He would touch my legs and ask to see me in a bikini. One time at a birthday party, he grabbed me and kissed me on the lips. I felt like I wanted to die," Martell said.

Martell’s anguish didn’t end there.

She said the Peruvian diplomat and his wife locked her passport in a safe, and told her that if she were to tell anyone, she would never see her family again.

"I couldn't do anything. They always treated me poorly. They always made me feel bad. If I did something, like leave, they told me they would run me over," Martell said, sobbing.

In a statement to CNN, the Peruvian diplomat disputed any claims made by Martell about the alleged abuse.

“Ms. Martell had her own cell phone, and was free to go wherever she wanted to go. We even took her on a family trip to Disneyworld and to other places as if she were our daughter,” the statement said.

CdeBaca said that ‘we’d like to think that slavery and human trafficking is what happens in the shadows, in the brothels, on the farms, out in the fishing fleets and things like that.”

But he said it also happens in capital cities.

“Unfortunately, the perpetrator, especially when it’s a domestic servant, might be cloaked with diplomatic immunity,” said CdeBaca.

Diplomatic immunity is often why diplomats do not face criminal charges. In fact, most diplomats only have to pay fees to their victims, which can take months, but more often years.

“The common thread on all of these cases is the diplomats have total immunity which means you cannot investigate them appropriately, you cannot arrest them, and you cannot question them,” said Martina Vandenberg, who represents victims in these types of cases.

Vandenberg represents one victim who was just awarded $1 million after being abused by a Tanzanian diplomat in Washington, D.C.  The diplomat and his wife were convicted of holding the victim against her will for four years.

However, Vandenberg believes such settlements are only part of the battle against domestic slavery.

“This is a huge problem. Maybe not in numbers but in terms of the impunity. The time has come for the United States to take bold action to end trafficking and abuse of domestic workers,” Vandenberg said

The also problem is not confined to foreign diplomats.

The State Department said some American diplomats abroad occasionally involve themselves in the practice.

In 2006, State Department employee Harold Countryman and his wife, Kim, were accused of keeping a domestic slave from Cambodia.

According to the Justice Department, the two pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting visa fraud. According to the plea agreement, Kim Countryman "admitted to using the fraudulent visa to further the forced labor of a Cambodian woman in their employ" and "acknowledged that she withheld a portion of the woman's pay, took possession of the woman's passport, and physically assaulted the woman."

Now, the State Department is taking measures aimed at ensuring the safety of domestic servants by briefing them of their rights.

One of the most important aspects of the briefing is a pamphlet developed by the agency.

“The pamphlet has a hotline number, 888-3737-888, they can call if there is a problem. It just tells them, you’ve got rights in the United States. We're telling people that they have a right to get help. Maybe under diplomatic immunity, we might not be able to prosecute the perpetrator the same way as a civilian, but at the very least we should try to help that person get out, and make sure they’re safe,” said CdeBaca.

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