Susan French: Pursuing Victim-Centered Prosecutions to help Human Trafficking Survivors

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With a successful career dedicated to ending human trafficking, Susan French is an advocate for strategic victim-centered prosecutions. French is a human trafficking civil attorney and expert, formerly a federal prosecutor for 14 years with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). During the early 2000s, she worked as a prosecutor in the United States v. Kil Soo Lee – the largest human trafficking case ever prosecuted by the DOJ. Now, 15 years later, individuals who worked on this case and survivors reunited in Hawaii to commemorate their escape from their oppressive situation. This massive undertaking changed how human trafficking is addressed in the U.S. The following is a recap of the landmark case and French’s involvement.

United States v. Kil Soo Lee

Beginning in late 1998 in American Samoa, former owner of the Daewoosa garment factory, Kil Soo Lee, was recruiting workers from China and Vietnam to pay between $3500-$7000 in exchange for employment. Approximately 250 employees were hired to work in poor conditions with minimal pay and food. In the following months, the laborers worked long hours and were subjected by Lee to countless acts of abuse, confiscation of their documents, and actual restraint in the factory compound where they lived and worked. On November 28, 2000, the oppressive exploitation culminated with Lee directing the Samoan factory workers to beat the Vietnamese and Chinese workers stating that if anyone died “no problem.” A 20 year old Vietnamese woman was beaten so badly that she lost an eye. The High Court of American Samoa removed Lee from the factory in November 2000, yet the workers remained with no money or means to leave. The DOJ soon interceded, prompting French and her team to travel to American Samoa to facilitate emergency services for the victims and to set up an exit plan.

French describes the early stages of the investigation as challenging and extremely demanding. With no money to transport the victims off the island, she and DOJ prosecutors coordinated with U.S.-based nonprofits and Vietnamese churches that provided plane tickets and sponsors for victims. Of the 250 victims, 206 were provided immigration relief and sponsors in the U.S. This included 16 who had been deported to Vietnam as a result of Lee’s actions but brought back to the U.S. for trial and provided immigration relief and allowed to stay. FBI agents and the federal prosecution team traveled around the U.S. to conduct full interviews with the 206 survivors. Approximately 16 testified at the federal jury trial in Honolulu.

The case lasted nearly two years, including a four-month jury trial . Lee was charged with compelling the work and services of approximately 250 Vietnamese and Chinese garment workers through threats of force and the actual use of force under the involuntary servitude statute in addition to multiple other criminal violations.. In 2003, Lee was found guilty on most all counts and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Two co-conspirators pled guilty, cooperated, and also served time.

French expressed that the case did not end with the verdict. This investigation put the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 to the test. The legislation criminalized human trafficking in the U.S. and is dedicated to restitution, covering unpaid wages, value of work provided and medical costs. French, along with the DOJ and agents working on this investigation, continued to reach out to survivors – doing everything in their power to ensure they had the resources enabling them to move on.

Susan participated in the reunion last week and reported, “The reunion was a celebration. I loved that although some of the Hawaii organizers said dress casually, everyone was dressed up. I believe the reason is we want to present at our best for our friends. That is how I see this group – proud, dignified, speakers of the truth who knew they were being wronged and decided to speak up.  When they tell me thank you for all you have done and all that you have made possible for me and my children, I simply say it is you who honor me and those who have known you because you each have made change possible in your own lives.”

For more information on victim-centered prosecutions, read Susan’s article in the most recent publication of the Anti-Trafficking Review.