SANTA ANA, Calif. — Last year, a Kenyan mother left her country to take a job as a maid for a royal Saudi family hoping to make enough money to cover her ailing 7-year-old daughter’s medical bills.
Once she arrived, she alleges, her passport was taken from her, she was forced to work long hours and was paid only a fraction of what she was promised.
It wasn’t until she traveled with the Saudi family on their vacation to the United States that she was able to escape, according to authorities. Carrying a suitcase, she flagged down a bus in the Orange County city of Irvine this week and told a passenger she was a victim of human trafficking, authorities said.
Meshael Alayban, a 42-year-old Saudi princess, was arrested Wednesday and charged with one felony count of human trafficking for allegedly holding the woman and forcing her to work against her will.
Alayban, who is being held on $5 million bail, appeared briefly in court in Santa Ana on Thursday in a dark blue jail jumpsuit as her arraignment was moved to July 29.
“It’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and slavery has been unlawful in the United States, and certainly in California, all this time, and it’s disappointing to see it in use here,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told reporters after the court proceedings.
“This is certainly an example of forced labor,” he said.
Defense attorney Paul Meyer declined to comment on the case. On Wednesday, Meyer argued in court for a reduced bail for Alayban, who has visited the country since she was a child, owns properties here and has given her word she will stay to address the allegations.
The case is the first labor trafficking case prosecuted in Orange County since voters approved a law last year to stiffen the penalties for human trafficking. If convicted, Alayban faces a maximum sentence of 12 years, which is double the sentence she could have received a year ago, Rackauckas said.
Prosecutors say Alayban is one of the six wives of Saudi Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz al Saud.
The Saudi royal family is extensive, with thousands of princes and princesses, including some who have run into trouble with the law.
In 2002, Saudi princess Buniah al-Saud, who was accused of pushing her maid down a flight of stairs, entered a no-contest plea in Florida and was fined $1,000. In 1995, another Saudi princess, Maha Al-Sudairi, allegedly beat a servant in front of sheriff’s deputies providing off-duty security. No charges were ever filed.
“These people have lots of money; they think they’re above the law,” said Ali AlAhmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs.
In Orange County, the 30-year-old Kenyan woman told authorities she had signed a two-year contract with an employment agency guaranteeing she would be paid $1,600 a month to work eight hours a day, five days a week at the job in Saudi Arabia. But starting in March 2012, she was forced to cook, clean and do other household chores for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and was paid only $220 a month, prosecutors said.
She was allowed to have a passport only long enough to enter the U.S., prosecutors said.
Once here, she was allegedly forced to tend to at least eight people in four units in the same Irvine complex, washing dishes, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and ironing.
When police searched the condo, they found four other workers from the Philippines. The women left voluntarily with officers and told them they were interested in being free, police said.
No charges have been filed related to those women and police said there were no signs any of the workers had been physically abused.
The women’s passports had been held with the victim’s documents in a safe deposit box, Rackauckas said.
If Alayban is released on bail, she will be required to wear a GPS monitoring device and remain in Orange County unless she has prior authorization from the court. On Thursday, the judge issued a protective order barring her from communicating with the woman from Kenya, whose name was not released. She also surrendered her passport.
Rackauckas said Alayban’s husband was at the Irvine condo during the police search. Authorities said there was no evidence to implicate him in the case.
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