Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Voodoo trafficker faces conviction in New Jersey

By Joe Ryan/The Star-Ledger

NEWARK -- A federal prosecutor today urged jurors to convict a woman accused of smuggling West African girls to New Jersey and forcing them to work without pay in hair braiding salons, saying she preyed on her victims' hopes for a better life in America.

Akouavi Kpade Afolabi is accused of recruiting more than 20 girls from impoverished villages in Togo and Ghana and then using beatings and threats of voodoo curses to make them toil up to 14 hours a day at salons in Newark and East Orange.

"She knew these girls were young. They were poor. They were uneducated," said Shana W. Chen, an assistant U.S. Attorney, during her closing argument. "She knew they wanted a better life and they were susceptible to that promise."

Afolabi's lawyer, Olubukola O. Adetula, is scheduled to deliver his closing argument later today. He has argued during the four-week trial that the girls were, in fact, paid and has described Afolabi as a benevolent mother figure who treated the alleged victims like daughters.

Afolabi sat silently during the proceedings, her eyes downcast as she listened to a translator repeat the arguments in her native language, Ewe. She wore a black-and-white striped blouse; dark slacks concealed the shackles around her ankles.

Afolabi was arrested in 2007 along with her former husband and son. They have already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit forced labor. Both told a federal judge that Afolabi, who has been in custody since her arrest, was the group's ringleader.

Prosecutors say the group manipulated a visa program to slip up to 20 girls and women into the country, ranging in age from 10 to 19. If convicted of forced labor, Afolabi faces up to 20 years in prison.

Afolabi housed the alleged victims in houses in Newark and East Orange.

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