The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release

Feb. 23, 2004

UI Law Professor Helps Justice Department Convict Human Trafficker

A garment factory owner on the American island territory of Samoa was recently convicted of involuntary servitude with the assistance of UI law professor Mark Sidel in a criminal prosecution that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has called "the largest human trafficking case ever prosecuted by the United States Department of Justice."

The factory owner was also convicted of conspiracy, extortion and money laundering for exploiting more than 200 Vietnamese and Chinese laborers in his plant. Sidel, an expert on Vietnamese law, government and culture, was the only outside consultant the Justice Department used to make its case, providing research and analysis that prosecutors used in their successful prosecution.

The factory owner, Kil-Soo Lee, faces a sentence of up to 30 years in prison and is currently undergoing mental evaluation at a federal detention center in Honolulu. He was convicted in U.S. District Court in Honolulu last February. Two convicted co-defendants were sentenced in recent weeks, one to a term of four years and three months in prison, the second to a term of five years and 10 months.

"The workers were subjected to beatings, starvation, extortion, confinement and other mistreatment," said Sidel. "A superb team of Justice Department prosecutors worked on this case for several years. Attorney General Ashcroft followed it closely and has spoken of it at a number of press conferences."

Sidel's research involved the workers who came to Samoa from Vietnam through work agencies in their homeland, some of them paying as much as $8,000 to leave Vietnam to work abroad. Although nominally private, the agencies are often arms of state organizations and are regulated by other government agencies. Sidel said much of his work involved helping the prosecutors understand the complex relationship between these labor export agencies, Vietnamese government ministries, and how they function within the Vietnamese political and economic system.

He said that Vietnamese workers use the labor export agencies to find work outside Vietnam in part because of high unemployment and under-employment there. Those who were sent to American Samoa found themselves in virtual slavery, stuck on an island that they could not leave and not knowing the language the island's residents spoke. If they complained or disobeyed, they were often beaten and threatened with deportation. According to government prosecutors, the workers were kicked, stomped and beaten with pipes and chairs. In one instance, a worker's eye was gouged out because she complained about not being paid.

Sidel also provided extensive information about Vietnamese labor law and rules applying to labor export from Vietnam. Sidel began his work on the case in the summer of 2002. He is a specialist in Vietnamese law who managed Ford Foundation programs in Vietnam in the 1990s, has taught Vietnamese law at UI and Harvard University, and lectured on it at law faculties in London, Paris and elsewhere. Sidel's research on the case for the Justice Department took place at the UI College of Law and at UI's Obermann Center for Advanced Studies.

The excesses eventually worked their way to the Justice Department, which began an investigation with Ashcroft taking a personal interest in the case. "Human trafficking is more than just a serious violation of the law, it is an affront to human dignity," Ashcroft said the day of Lee's conviction.

The UI law faculty has a strong group of experts working on American and comparative labor and employment law and servitude. Professors Jill Gaulding, Marc Linder, Peggie Smith and Lea VanderVelde all teach and conduct research on aspects of these issues.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010, tom-snee@uiowa.edu.