East Jerusalem Family Might Evade Charge of Enslaving Foreign Worker

In a landmark case in Israel, a judge has proposed that an East Jerusalem family not be charged with enslaving a foreign worker.

In September 2009, 23-year-old Mary Ann Pawig decided to run away from the home of Ibrahim and Basma Julani in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shoafat. She had worked for two years as a domestic with the family, who paid her $150 a month with no days off. According to Pawig, she was kept locked up and coordinated her escape with a Jerusalem activist who helps foreign workers.

She instructed the taxi driver who would pick her up to wait outside the house. Pawig took the key, opened the door and went outside carrying a garbage bag so it would not be obvious she was running away. As she dashed for the taxi, she dropped her passport. Basma Julani later went to the police station with the passport and lodged a complaint that the young woman had fled after stealing jewelry.

Following a complaint by Pawig to the police, the prosecution submitted an indictment at the Jerusalem District Court against the Julanis - the first of its kind in Israel: holding someone under conditions of slavery. The law stipulates at least four years in prison for such an offense, unless the court cites mitigating circumstances that reduce the sentence. The maximum penalty is 16 years in prison.

According to the charge sheet, Pawig was housed in a bathroom in the Julani home where she had a folding bed and shelf. She cleaned the house from 7 A.M. until 10 P.M. and was not entitled to a day's rest or vacation. During her first year with the family, she was not permitted to leave the house, but during her second year she could go to a nearby grocery and their daughter's home next door. When she went out, they monitored her movements. When the Julanis were on vacation, Pawig was left in a locked house.

The trial began in March. The prosecutor, Sagi Ofir, told the court that since this was the first time the law was being tested, "the court is requested to take a red pen and begin marking the boundaries of the norm established by the law."

According to Ofir, "The court will not hear from Mary Ann descriptions of physical or psychological violence .... But the fact that she was not permitted the possibility of leaving the house alone ... not even for one day over the whole period - is that not the sign of possessiveness and objectification?"

The Julanis claimed, through their lawyer, Ariel Atari, that Pawig had lived in their home like a daughter - in her own sizable room with a bed, shower, toilet and a door she was allowed to lock. They said she was able to leave the house freely and would visit public places, where she sometimes met with other Filipino workers.

The couple described her work as a few light chores that left her plenty of time to watch television. They said they bought her telephone cards so she could speak freely on the phone.

Last week, when Pawig underwent a cross-examination, the judges requested that the accused and plaintiff leave the courtroom, with only the lawyers remaining. In the end, the bench, headed by Judge Jacob Zaban, proposed that the prosecution consider changing the severe criminal charge of enslavement to a lesser one of illegally employing a foreign worker. After all, it had turned out that Pawig hadn't been locked up.

Zaban also hinted that there was no point to criminal charges against Nili Priell, the wife of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for employing a foreign domestic worker illegally.