RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The U.S. has forced a Kuwaiti diplomat to leave his post at the embassy here in Washington, D.C. He was accused of treating his domestic servants in the U.S. like slaves. This may be the first time the U.S. government has taken such strong action against a diplomat accused of abusing domestic staff.
As NPR's Libby Lewis reports, it may signal a new direction for the State Department.
LIBBY LEWIS: You may remember our reports that aired last March. We told you about three servants from India who fled the home of their embassy boss, Major Waleed Al Saleh. Then they sued him over how he and his wife treated them in their plush home in McLean, Virginia.
Kumari Sabbithi was one of those servants.
Ms. KUMARI SABBITHI (Former Servant, Kuwait Embassy, McLean, Virginia): (Through translator) They would beat me at times. They would push me against the wall. They'll hold my head and drag me.
LEWIS: Major Al Saleh could not be reached by NPR, but in a statement, he called those allegations, quote, "absolutely untrue."
The FBI opened an investigation to see whether the diplomat had violated U.S. anti-trafficking laws. At the end of September, Al Saleh quietly left his post at the embassy and returned to Kuwait. A Justice Department spokesman who spoke with NPR said the case has been closed without prosecution but, quote, "with a favorable result."
Sabbithi's lawyer Claudia Flores described what really happened. She works for the ACLU.
Ms. CLAUDIA FLORES (Lawyer, Women's Rights Project, American Civil Liberties Union): The Department of Justice communicated with the State Department that they wish to prosecute this case and would so but for diplomatic immunity. Then the State Department sent a communication to the Kuwaiti government requesting a waiver of immunity or stating that if they refused to waive immunity, that the diplomat should leave the country.
LEWIS: Officially, the State Department declined comment, but NPR confirmed that account with a source at the Kuwaiti Embassy familiar with the case. Similar allegations have cropped up among some embassy employees for years, but the Kuwaiti case may be the first where the U.S. has forced out an embassy official for illegal treatment of domestic employees.
The State Department has to maintain good diplomatic relations and at the same time ensure foreign diplomats don't abuse their immunity from prosecution to evade U.S. laws.
Up to now, the Bush administration's focus on fighting human trafficking has clashed with a kid-gloves treatment given to foreign diplomats in the U.S. under the Vienna Convention.
Lawyer Claudia Flores says she thinks the Kuwaiti case signals a real shift as a State Department.
Ms. FLORES: I think it is definitely a clear and strong message from the U.S. government that the government is noticing a pattern, understands that it can't allow a group of women workers in this country to be essentially defenseless and without rights, and that there will be consequences for the diplomat.
Tom Lantos, the Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says he, too, thinks the State Department is changing. He is urging the State Department to intervene in the case of a Tanzanian diplomat, Alan Mzengi.
His employee, Zipora Mazengo, said she worked for Mzengi in his home for four years and never got paid. She says the family forced her to work long hours and denied her medical care.
Lantos wants the State Department to act.
Representative TOM LANTOS (Democrat; Chairman, House Committee on Foreign Affairs): We demand that this Tanzanian diplomat be kicked out of the country and that is in the process of being undertaken.
LEWIS: Mzengi declined an interview with NPR, but Joseph Sokoine, a counselor with the mission, said the Tanzanian embassy is aware of the issue and is working on this issue.
Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.