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Few consequences for diplomats accused of abusing domestic workers

A maid or nanny alleges that her employer has raped her, taken her passport, made her shovel snow in shorts, refused to pay her or beat her unconscious.

In most cases, this is what would happen next: Police would investigate. If the allegations were true, the employer would face criminal charges and a potential civil lawsuit for emotional and monetary damages.

Unless the employer is a diplomat.

Getting help
-- If you are a victim of human trafficking or other abuse, or know someone who might be a victim, you can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center's hotline at 888-373-7888.

All of those allegations have been made against high-level foreign officials in Washington in recent years. They foreshadowed the sexual assault accusations from a New York hotel maid facing Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now the former chief of the International Monetary Fund. But unlike Strauss-Kahn, D.C.-area diplomats have largely escaped criminal courtrooms and serious consequences.

Some have diplomatic immunity, so criminal charges were never brought. Civil suits have been filed, but the diplomats can leave the country to avoid being served, showing up for court or paying judgments.

"It's very troubling when diplomatic immunity is used as a buffer to stand in the way of justice," said Mark Lagon, former head of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

A Government Accountability Office report found 42 likely human trafficking cases involving diplomats between 2000 and 2008. About 10 domestic workers for diplomats have filed lawsuits in D.C.-area courts over the past five years.

The allegations range from unpaid wages to rape, but penalties are rare.

A lawsuit filed by a housekeeper for Kuwaiti attache Brig. Gen. Ahmed Al Naser says the diplomat raped the woman "on many occasions" and she "lived in constant fear of being raped." Al Naser is believed to have left the country and has never been served with the suit. The Embassy of Kuwait didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.

A suit against Lebanese Ambassador Antoine Chedid, which says he underpaid and abused a Filipina domestic servant, was dismissed in April because he has diplomatic immunity. Chedid denies the allegations, said his attorney, Mary Gately.

In 2007, a judge awarded more than $1 million to a domestic worker for Alan Mzengi, a minister-counselor at the Embassy of Tanzania, after he held the woman "as a virtual prisoner," according to the lawsuit. He took her passport, forced her to work more than 16 hours a day -- including shoveling snow in a short-sleeve shirt and shorts -- and coerced her into working for his African-food catering business.

But Mzengi fled and the woman still hasn't seen the money.

"There's a big difference between obtaining a judgment and obtaining the funds," said Martina Vandenberg, the woman's attorney and an expert on diplomat-abuse cases.

In an rare criminal case, World Bank economist Anne Bakilana -- whose immunity, like Strauss-Kahn's, only covered official duties -- spent a day in jail and agreed to pay $41,000 in back wages to a former domestic worker after Bakilana admitted she lied to the FBI about her treatment of the servant.

A civil suit against Bakilana is pending. Her lawyer, Charles Chester, said Bakilana has paid the restitution and the accusations "pale in comparison" to allegations against other diplomats.

Resolutions are seldom reached in court when the accused has full diplomatic immunity because the diplomat simply returns home and his country refuses to waive immunity, said the State Department's Lagon.