California court dismisses trafficking case against Saudi princess

Meshael Alayban faced arraignment on charges that would have brought up to 12 years in prison

Meshael Alayban at her arraignment at Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, Calif., on Friday.
Nick Ut/Reuters

California prosecutors on Friday dropped a human trafficking case against a Saudi princess that was brought after a Kenyan maid alleged her passport had been taken away and she had been forced to work long hours for meager pay.

The 42-year-old princess, Meshael Alayban, smiled broadly as she left a Santa Ana courtroom after the judge lifted her $5 million bond, returned her passports and ordered that an electronic monitoring device be removed.

Alayban had been charged with bringing her accuser to the United States in May, confiscating her passport and paying her $220 a month to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, in circumstances that Orange County's top prosecutor likened to slavery.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told the judge that investigators had tried to corroborate the allegations but found the evidence did not support the claim.

Another attorney in the case, Jennifer Keller, thanked the district attorney for "being a man of integrity" on behalf of Alayban's family and the nation of Saudi Arabia.

Prosecutors initially said that after the royal family traveled to the California city of Irvine, Alayban took the maid's passport and paid her a fraction of what she was promised.

The maid left Alayban's Irvine condominium in July, got on a bus and told a passenger she had escaped, authorities said. The passenger helped her contact police, who searched the condo where Alayban and her family were staying.

Defense lawyer Paul Meyer said the accuser's claims were "based on lies," and he issued a statement calling the allegations a scam to gain permanent resident status in the United States.

"This has been a nightmare for this family," Meyer said.

In announcing the charges earlier this month, Rackauckas said it would be the first case prosecuted in Orange County under California's voter-approved Proposition 35, which toughens penalties for human trafficking.

"It's been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, so slavery has been illegal in the United States and certainly in California all this time. It's disappointing to see it in use here," Rackauckas said then.

Officers who went to the home found four Filipina women whose status was unclear, and prosecutors had said more charges might be filed in the high-profile case. Prosecutors did not mention those women on Friday, but Meyer said no one had been overworked in the household or held against her will.

Many households in Saudi Arabia and other nations in the Gulf Arab region are highly dependent on domestic servants, including maids and nannies from African and South Asian countries who sometimes work long hours and may see their passports held by their employers.

Some employers have landed on the wrong side of the law in Western countries. A Saudi princess was accused of mistreating a servant in Florida more than a decade ago, and another Saudi princess was taken to court in Boston in 2005 on charges of forced labor. Media reports said in both cases the women later pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Defense lawyers had said all the women working in Alayban's home were treated well.

"These women had cell phones, Internet, Facebook and the family even bought cable in their native language for them," Meyer and Keller said in a statement in July.

"They enjoyed full use of the spa, gym and pool, and were often dropped off to shop alone at neighborhood malls, all paid for by the family," the statement said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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