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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Togolese man sentenced for forcing West African women to work in New Jersey hair-braiding salons

NEWARK, N.J. - A Togolese man was sentenced June 28 for his participation in an operation in which dozens of women and girls were forced to work at hair braiding salons in Newark and East Orange, N.J., without pay for the financial benefit of the defendants, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced.

Hounakey, 33, was sentenced to 55 months in prison for conspiring with others, including his mother and her ex-husband, to commit forced labor, traffic with respect to forced labor, and hold visas and identification.

The defendant previously pleaded guilty to the charges before U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares, who also imposed the sentence in Newark federal court.

At his plea hearing, Hounakey admitted that from October 2002 through September 2007, he engaged in a conspiracy to obtain the forced labor of a number of women and girls whom his mother, Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, had brought over from Togo with fraudulent visas. Once the victims entered the United States, Hounakey and his co-defendants required them to work at hair braiding salons for up to 14 hours per day, six or seven days a week. The victims were also required to turn over all of their earnings, including their tips, to the defendants. The defendants did not allow the young women to keep their passports or identification, to speak with their families outside of the defendants' presence, or to make any outside friends. Hounakey stated that his mother recruited individuals to pose as the relatives of the girls and women and that another defendant, Geoffry Kouevi, helped them study facts about their fake husbands and fathers in order to fraudulently obtain visas. Hounakey also admitted to having sex with several of the victims, one of whom was a minor, and to hitting a girl for making a telephone call without permission, during the course of the conspiracy.

In addition to the prison term, Judge Linares sentenced Hounakey to three years of supervised release and ordered him to pay restitution to each of the victims, in the total amount of $3,949,140.80. The restitution amount includes the wages the victims should have been paid during their servitude, calculated under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which provides for payment of minimum wage and overtime, as well as compensatory damages for the delay in receiving their wages.

Lassissi Afolabi, who previously pleaded guilty to related charges, is scheduled to be sentenced on July 12, 2010. Kouevi and Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, who were convicted after separate jury trials, are scheduled to be sentenced on July 20, 2010, and Sept. 1, 2010, respectively.

In determining an actual sentence, Judge Linares consulted the advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which recommend sentencing ranges that take into account the severity and characteristics of the offense, the defendants' criminal history, if any, and other factors, including acceptance of responsibility. Parole has been abolished in the federal system. Defendants who are given custodial terms must serve nearly all of that time.

U.S. Attorney Fishman credited ICE special agents in Newark, under the direction of SAC Peter T. Edge, as well as Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Department of Labor for the investigation.