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28.05.2003 General News

Enslavement In USA: "Maid" testified of unpaid labour

By Washington Post
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Saturday, May 24, 2003 -- A Ghanaian woman testified yesterday that a Takoma Park couple charged with enslaving her made her work around the clock seven days a week, taking care of the couple's young daughter, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and raking leaves, and never paid her for her labor. Fighting back tears at several points, Margaret Owusuwaah testified in federal court in Greenbelt that Barbara Coleman-Blackwell, 33, an accountant, and her husband, Kenneth Blackwell, 37, piled on so much work that she had no free time. Owusuwaah, 44, testified that she was often ordered to clean up after Blackwell vomited and had to remove Coleman-Blackwell's shoes from her feet as she reclined on a sofa or chair. She also said that Coleman-Blackwell arranged for her to care for the children of five of her friends and kept almost all the money the friends paid for her services. The Blackwells are on trial in U.S. District Court accused of bringing Owusuwaah to the United States illegally and enslaving her as an unpaid domestic servant. Coleman-Blackwell's mother, Grace Coleman, a former deputy finance minister of Ghana, is charged with arranging to bring Owusuwaah -- her cousin from a poor village -- to the United States under false pretenses and with forced labor. Coleman is a member of Ghana's Parliament and remains in that country; federal officials have filed papers seeking her extradition. The defendants are charged with abusing Owusuwaah from February 2000, when she came to the United States and began living with the Blackwells, until July 2001, when she ran away. The trial began Tuesday and is expected to last two more weeks. During more than four hours of direct testimony under questioning by Seth Rosenthal, a trial attorney with the Justice Department's civil rights division, Owusuwaah for the most part described her experience matter-of-factly, though she became emotional when describing specific incidents of mistreatment. In their opening statements, attorneys for both defendants said Owusuwaah was not an abused domestic servant, but a family member who wanted to come to the United States. They said she voluntarily took care of the Blackwells' daughter, Kendra, who was born in 1997, and helped with household chores. "She asked to come to the United States to help with Kendra," said Boniface K. Cobbina, Coleman-Blackwell's attorney. Testifying through a translator, Owusuwaah said Coleman arranged for her visa and told her she would be paid $150 a month for taking care of Kendra. After working for about two months without payment, Owusuwaah testified, she asked Coleman-Blackwell for her wages. Coleman-Blackwell called her mother and handed the phone to her, Owusuwaah testified. Coleman angrily told her that if she raised the issue again, she would ask the Ghanaian embassy to whisk her back to Ghana, where she would be locked up, Owusuwaah testified. Many times, Owusuwaah said, Coleman-Blackwell ordered her to clean up after Blackwell vomited. "When he vomits, Barbara calls me to clean. Sometimes she calls me while I'm eating, and I can't eat any more," Owusuwaah testified. In July 2001, Owusuwaah testified, she found her passport inside the pages of a magazine in a closet and ran away to the home of a friend of Coleman-Blackwell's who had been nice to her. The Blackwell case is the third domestic slavery case that federal prosecutors have brought in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt in the past three years. In March 2002, U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. -- who is presiding over the Blackwell trial -- sentenced a Silver Spring couple to nine years in prison for enslaving a teenager from Cameroon and forcing her to work for three years without pay as a babysitter and housekeeper. In August 2000, a Gaithersburg man who kept a Brazilian woman as a live-in slave for nearly 20 years and did nothing to stop his wife from beating her was sentenced to 61/2 years in prison.

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