NEWARK, New Jersey – A Togolese woman accused of forcing girls from Africa to work in New Jersey hair braiding salons for no pay has been convicted of human trafficking and visa fraud in a case her lawyer says highlighted African cultural norms that failed to translate in America.
Prosecutors argued that Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, called "Sister" by the women she oversaw, helped bring at least 20 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 from the West African nations of Togo and Ghana on fraudulent visas to New Jersey starting in 2002.
They said she manipulated the impoverished young women, who aspired to live better lives in America, and kept them in slavery-like conditions while stealing all their pay — even tips as meager as fifty cents.
Afolabi's lawyer, Bukie Adetula, countered that his client was considered a benevolent mother figure and revered community leader — both in her native Togo and New Jersey. He said she was known for lending people money and aiding young women to escape their poverty-stricken homeland to learn a marketable skill in America.
"I don't think the jury quite got it, the whole essence of the defense that this was cultural; the argument that they (Afolabi) brought Togo to America," Adetula said.
He spoke outside the Newark federal courtroom following a unanimous guilty verdict on all 22 counts, which was returned just hours after the jury began deliberations.
During the monthlong trial, prosecutors outlined a scheme they say Afolabi and her ex-husband and son — who have pleaded guilty — used to keep the young women tightly controlled.
They said the women were beaten, psychologically abused and, in some cases, sexually abused, while being kept from phoning home, contacting friends or family, or accessing their passports and other documents.
Adetula said what the U.S. government called slave-like supervision was merely a West African custom of protecting young girls by making sure they were tightly supervised, especially in a foreign country where they didn't know the customs or the language.
Afolabi, who alternated throughout the trial between western wear and traditional African dress, sat shackled at the ankles with her head bowed much of the time, listening through headphones to a simultaneous interpreter in Ewe, her native tongue.
She wept often throughout the proceedings, especially during descriptions of her former husband's alleged sexual relations with several of the women, some of them underage.
Afolabi, who her lawyer said has been jailed since her 2007 arrest, faces up to 20 years in prison when she's sentenced in January.