Monday, June 28, 2010

New Jersey man sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for human trafficking

A West African immigrant was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison today for helping his mother run a human trafficking ring that forced women to braid hair at salons in Newark and East Orange.

Dereck Hounakey, 33, from Togo, stood shackled in a yellow jail-issue jumpsuit as U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares said his crime inflicted untold physical and psychological damage to more than 20 girls and women from West Africa, some just 10 years old.

"The women were forced not only to work for free but to turn over any tips," said Linares, who ordered Hounakey to give the victims $3.9 million in unpaid wages.

Hounakey was charged in 2007 along with three others in connection with the smuggling and forced labor ring run by his mother, Akouavi Kpade Afolabi. She was convicted in October after a trial in which her lawyer argued prosecutors’ mistook a West African-style apprenticeship program as slavery.

The once-prosperous jewelry and textile merchant recruited young women from impoverished villages in Ghana and Togo with the promise of a better life in America. But once they arrived, Afolabi, Hounakey and the others forced them to braid hair for up to 14 hours a day. She used beatings and threats of voodoo curses to intimidate them into surrendering every dollar — every 50-cent tip — they earned.

"They lived off of the back of these young women," Assistant U.S. Attorney Shana W. Chen said.
Hounakey pleaded guilty in August and, like the others, has been custody since his arrest. He is a permanent legal resident of the United States and could be deported upon his release from prison.

Afolabi is scheduled to be sentenced in September and faces up to 20 years in prison. Her ex-husband, Lassissi Afolabi, and a fourth man, Geoffry Kouevi, both pleaded guilty and are scheduled to be sentenced in July.

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