N.J. woman is convicted of human trafficking and visa fraud
NEWARK - A woman accused of forcing girls from Africa to work in New Jersey hair braiding salons for no pay was convicted yesterday 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 50 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 helping young women 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.
Paul J. Fishman, the US attorney for New Jersey, said the government will seek a life sentence for Afolabi, even though she could get a lighter sentence under federal guidelines.
“The evidence presented at trial revealed that these young women, some as young as 10 years old, endured unconscionable indignities,’’ Fishman said in a statement. “The defendant ruled over her victims with threats, violence, even voodoo curses.’’
During the monthlong trial, prosecutors outlined a scheme they say Afolabi and her former 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.
Afolabi, 55, a legal US resident, faces sentencing in January. She has been jailed since her arrest in 2007.