Ukrainian pair fight charges of forced labor in US

October 11, 2011 5:08:55 PM PDT
In a case that echoes stories of forced labor around the globe, federal prosecutors hope to convict two Ukrainian brothers of smuggling desperate villagers to the United States from their homeland and enslaving them in menial jobs once they arrived.

Those who complained or ran away risked beatings and threats to their families back home, the government said. At least one woman testified that she was repeatedly raped by one of the defendants, Omelyan Botsvynyuk.

"This is a case about using force, threats of force and coercion to keep people working for you," Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Velez said in closing arguments Tuesday in Philadelphia. The jury is expected to start deliberating Wednesday after four weeks of testimony.

Defense lawyers argue that the witnesses were eager to come to the U.S. - and will say anything to stay here. They say the workers testified only to get "T-visas," set aside for trafficking victims, so they won't be sent back to the Ukraine.

"Why would you want to go back?" lawyer Joshua Briskin said, referencing allegations of police and military corruption. "It sounds like the Wild West."

Briskin said there was little testimony linking his client, 36-year-old Stepan Botsvynyuk, to the alleged beating, rapes or racketeering charges.

And witnesses had said it was Omelyan Botsvynyuk , 55, who bailed them out of immigration custody when they were detained in California.

Lawyers for both brothers questioned the workers' motivations. They asked why one bought a home in the Ukraine next door to the Botsvynyuk family, despite claims of enslavement, and why photos show the workers eating and drinking at a Botsvynyuk family baptism.

The brothers allegedly lured about 30 victims from Ukraine from 2000 to 2007, smuggling them to Philadelphia through Mexico. They promised pay of $500 a month, but workers say they were paid little or nothing.

The Botsvynyuks housed the victims in deplorable conditions and insisted they work for years until they pay off smuggling debts of $10,000 to $50,000, according to the indictment filed last year. The workers were moved frequently throughout the mid-Atlantic, where they said they often spent 16-hour days cleaning stores, offices and supermarkets. Some escaped despite the threats, prosecutors said.

But others acknowledged that they secretly found time to work day jobs at various stores, to earn extra money.

The indictment names three additional brothers as defendants, but two are fighting extradition from Canada and one has died.

Authorities have said the retail stores did not know of the alleged forced labor, because they hired cleaning crews through contractors.

Briskin noted that several victims had access to police or pastors in the U.S., and wondered why they never confided in them about their plight.

However, Velez said that was not surprising.

"These people were strangers in a strange land," Velez said. "It is what many people would do under those circumstances."

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