“I’m sorry.”

That’s what Bidemi Bello, a 42-year-old Nigerian woman, told her two victims in a United States courtroom earlier this month.

US. District Judge William S. Duffy, Jr. convicted Bello, a once successful London-educated businesswoman, earlier this month to 140 months in prison. Duffy also ordered Bello to pay $144,200 in restitution to her victims. Bello will be stripped of her U.S. citizenship—she was naturalized in 2004.

Her victims are two Nigerian girls, known as Laome and Dupe, who were brought to the United States by Bello. Both girls are now 27-years-old.

Bello had recruited Laome and Dupe from Nigeria to come to the United States to work as nannies. She had promised to treat the girls like family members and to send them to school, according to the Office of the U.S. Attorney.

However, Laome and Dupe were forced to work as slaves without pay, faced to endure physical and verbal abuse.

In 2001, Bello had recruited Laome, who was 17 at the time, from Nigeria. Laome worked in Bello’s large home in an upscale neighborhood in Gwinnett County, Ga. from October 2001 through March 2004.

Laome eventually escaped, reportedly, with the help of one of Bello’s friends, who hid Laome in the back of car and covered Laome with blankets.

Bello then went back to Nigeria, to find another “house girl.” She recruited Dupe, who was 19 at the time.  Bello brought Dupe to Georgia, again promising to send Dupe to school. Dupe worked in Bello’s home from November 2004 until April 2006 until she gathered enough money to escape by taking a taxicab to a church, where pastors assisted her.  

Laome and Dupe were given T-visas, which authorized their stay in the United States to assist in the prosecution of Bello. T-visas http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=02ed3e4d77d73210VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=02ed3e4d77d73210VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD give victims of human trafficking a “T” nonimmigrant status. 

During the investigation, Bello had left the United States and was arrested upon re-entry at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas.

Evidence from the case shows that Laome and Dupe were routinely beaten for not responding quickly enough, not cleaning to Bello’s liking and for other perceived infractions. Case evidence revealed that wooden spoons, shoes and electrical cords were some of the items used to beat the girls. Bello had also beaten one of the girls with a rolling pin and had punched her in the mouth.

“When she called me and I didn’t answer in time, she would slap me,” Laome said after the sentencing in court, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. http://www.ajc.com/news/gwinnett/gwinnett-woman-sentenced-to-1200147.html

The girls were forced to sleep on the floor or couch and were not allowed to shower, but were made to bathe with a bucket. Bello, reportedly, gave them food that had already spoiled.

United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said of the case, “forcing young women to work without compensation for their services is modern-day slavery. The laws of the United States protect all victims from such abuse, regardless of where they came from or how they came to be in the United States.”
http://www.fbi.gov/atlanta/press-releases/2010/atl092010.htm

Bello was indicted in September 2010, and later convicted of eight charges: two counts of forced labor, two counts of trafficking for forced labor, one count of alien harboring, two counts of making false statements in an application to become a U.S. citizen and one account of “document servitude.” She had taken the girls’ passports and government documents to prevent them from leaving.  A federal jury had delivered the verdict back in June after a one-week trial and deliberations that lasted an hour and 10 minutes, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. http://www.ajc.com/news/woman-convicted-of-forcing-974199.html

“The use of violence, threats and intimidation to force individuals to work is reprehensible and illegal,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “In our country, we have the right to choose to perform or not perform labor or services, and the Department of Justice is committed to persecuting individuals who force persons to do work against their will. http://www.fbi.gov/atlanta/press-releases/2010/atl092010.htm

Angela Blackwell lives behind Bello’s former home in Sugar Hill, Gwinnett County.  Blackwell told a local television reporter that she was very concerned when she heard screaming coming from the house and had even called the police.

“We heard someone say, ‘die, die, die,” Blackwell said.

“It was so shocking we were thinking surely we didn’t hear that…we heard some whipping or slapping noises and then we heard some crying…I have three children and to think we were playing within a few feet of all of this going on is just disturbing—I mean, this is America,” Blackwell told the reporter.

However, Bello’s attorney, federal public defender Suzanne Hashimi said that Bello was also once a house servant who had suffered from abuse. Hashimi has asked Duffy to reduce the sentence in consideration of this information. 

Bello’s courtroom address revealed a sense of remorse. Her only daughter reportedly has moved to Nigeria.

“My actions have cost my daughter the opportunity of being raised here,” Bello said. “There is so much shame.”

But Bello is not alone in her “shame.” Other U.S. -based Nigerians have been found guilty of similar charges.

Last year, a Nigerian married couple in Arlington, Texas, Emmanuel and Ngozi Nnaji were convicted by a federal jury of “engaging in a nine-year scheme to compel the labor of a Nigerian victim as their domestic servant,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2010/February/10-crt-118.html 

The FBI reported that the couple had lured a Nigerian widow with a false promise of a salary and support for her the widow’s six children.

Evidence showed that Emmanuel Nnaji, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had sexually assaulted the widow.

Emmanuel, who was 50-years-old at the time of the sentencing, will face 20 years in prison. His wife, who was 40 and is a Nigerian citizen, was sentenced to nine years in prison. 

“The involuntary servitude and mistreatment that this victim endured is intolerable in a nation founded on freedom and individual rights,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez in a statement.

In another case, Nigerian-born doctor, Adaobi Udeozor of Maryland, was sentenced to seven years and three months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $110,249 after being convicted of conspiracy and harboring a 14-year-old girl. Udeozor’s husband, who had allegedly raped the 14-year-old, had fled to Nigeria to evade trial. He was later sentenced to over eight years in prison, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice.  http://www.justice.gov/usao/md/Public-Affairs/press_releases/press08/FormerMontgomeryCountyManSentencedtoover8YearsforHoldingaTeenageGirlinInvoluntaryServitude.html

Lastly, there was Emeka and Ifeoma Udogwu, a married couple arrested and charged in New York in1999 for forcing a Nigerian girl to be their servant for nine years. A Manhattan federal court had accused the couple of conspiracy, involuntary servitude and witness tampering.

The fact is what may be perceived as a cultural norm in Nigeria will not be tolerated in the United States—the maltreatment and forced servitude of “house help.” What is referred to as human trafficking has become the fastest growing crime in the world. Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers lure individuals with false promises of employment and a better life. A reported 12.3 million people, mostly women and girls, are presently facing forced labor, bonded labor and sex slavery, according to the International Labor Organization. The United Nations reports that the global enterprise has an estimated total market value of $32 billion.

U.S officials take these cases quite seriously.

The American CIA estimates that between 15,000 to 17,500 slaves are brought into the U.S. every year. About 50,000 of them work as domestic servants, farm workers or prostitutes.

Atlanta is said to be the No. #1 hub for human trafficking in the United States. That’s one of the reasons why Georgia passed a bill that will discourage the illicit enterprise. It calls for those convicted of using coercion to traffic someone under the age of 18 to a 25-year minimum sentence. The law went into effect July 1, 2011. http://www1.legis.ga.gov/legis/2011_12/sum/hb200.htm

“Human trafficking is a repugnant crime that is growing like cancer in our society,” said Ga. Governor, Nathan Deal in a press release. http://www.georgia.gov/00/press/detail/0,2668,165937316_170988643_171040856,00.html  “Signing this bill into law, I join my fellow Georgians in declaring moral outrage and vowing to fight human trafficking here in our state. These criminals rob their victims of freedom and human dignity, and they destroy lives. With this bill now a law, we will find these criminals and we will punish them harshly.”

Other states have similar laws. The state of California enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2005 to “establish human trafficking for forced labor or services as a felony crime punishable by a sentence of 3,4 or 5 years in state prison and a sentence of 4, 6 or 8 years for trafficking a minor.”

The state of Massachusetts also recently approved an anti-human trafficking bill, along with Maryland, New York, Texas and others.

Nigerians like Bello, the Nnaji’s, the Udogwu’s and the Udeozor’s are now among the many convicts sentenced in the United States to pay the price of human trafficking of what many of ‘our people’ refer to as “common house help.”

***

Chika Oduah is a news associate at NBC News in New York City and a reporter for SaharaTV. For more about Chika, visit www.chika-oduah.com

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