4 members of a billionaire family get prison in Switzerland for exploiting domestic workers

Indian-Swiss billionaire family members Namrata Hinduja (L) and Ajay Hinduja (2ndR) arrive at the Geneva’s courthouse with their lawyers Yael Hayat (C) and Robert Assael (R) at the opening day of their trial for human trafficking on January 15, 2024. (AFP/File)
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Updated 21 June 2024
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4 members of a billionaire family get prison in Switzerland for exploiting domestic workers

 

GENEVA: An Indian-born billionaire and three family members were sentenced to prison on Friday for exploiting domestic workers at their lakeside villa in Switzerland by seizing their passports, barring them from going out and making them work up to 18 hours a day.

A Swiss court dismissed more serious charges of human trafficking against 79-year-old tycoon Prakash Hinduja; his wife, Kamal; son Ajay and daughter-in-law Namrata on the grounds that the workers understood what they were getting into, at least in part. The four received between four and 4 1/2 years in prison.

A fifth defendant — Najib Ziazi, the family’s business manager — received an 18-month suspended sentence.

Lawyers for the members of the Swiss-Indian family — who were not present in court — said they would appeal the verdict.

The workers were mostly illiterate Indians who were paid not in Swiss francs but in Indian rupees, deposited in banks back home that they couldn’t access.

The four were convicted of “usury” for having taken advantage of their vulnerable immigrant staff to pay them a pittance.

“The employees’ inexperience was exploited,” judge Sabina Mascotto said in her judgment. “They had little education or none at all and had no knowledge of their rights.

“The defendants’ motives were selfish,” she said, adding that the Hindujas were motivated “by the desire for gain.”

The court acquitted them of the more serious charge of human trafficking, on the grounds that the workers had traveled to Switzerland willingly.

Dogs treated better

During the trial the family were accused of bringing servants from their native India and confiscating their passports once they got to Switzerland.
Prosecutor Yves Bertossa accused the Hindujas of spending “more on their dog than on their domestic employees.”
The family paid the household staff about 325 francs ($363) a month, up to 90 percent less than the going rate, the judge said.
“The four Hinduja defendants knew the weak position their employees were in and knew the law in Switzerland,” Mascotto said.
The family denied the allegations, claiming the prosecutors wanted to “do in the Hindujas.”
They had reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with the three employees who made the accusations against them, leading them to drop their legal action, said the defense.
Despite this, the prosecution had decided to pursue the case due to the seriousness of the charges.
Following the verdict, Bertossa requested an immediate detention order for Ajay and Namrata Hinduja, claiming a flight risk.
The judged denied it, accepting the defense argument that the family had ties to Switzerland. It noted that Kamal Hinduja was hospitalized in Monaco and the three other family members were at her bedside.
Both the elder Hindujas had been absent since the start of the trial for health reasons.
A statement from the defense lawyers announcing the appeal said they were “appalled and disappointment” at the court’s ruling.
But it added: “The family has full faith in the judicial process and remains confident that the truth will prevail.”

Denial
The defense had argued that the three employees received ample benefits, were not kept in isolation and were free to leave the villa.
“We are not dealing with mistreated slaves,” Nicolas Jeandin told the court.
Indeed, the employees “were grateful to the Hindujas for offering them a better life,” his fellow lawyer Robert Assael argued.
Representing Ajay Hinduja, lawyer Yael Hayat had slammed the “excessive” indictment, arguing the trial should be a question of “justice, not social justice.”
Namrata Hinduja’s lawyer Romain Jordan had also pleaded for acquittal, claiming the prosecutors were aiming to make an example of the family.
He argued the prosecution had failed to mention extra payments made to staff on top of their cash salaries.
“No employee was cheated out of his or her salary,” Assael added.
With interests in oil and gas, banking and health care, the Hinduja Group is present in 38 countries and employs around 200,000 people.

Excessie sentence?

Robert Assael, a lawyer for Kamal Hinduja, said he was “relieved” that the court threw out the trafficking charges but called the sentence excessive.
“The health of our clients is very poor, they are elderly people,” he said, explaining why the family was not in court. He said Hinduja’s 75-year-old wife was in intensive care and the family was with her.
Last week, it emerged in court that the family had reached an undisclosed settlement with the plaintiffs. Swiss authorities have seized diamonds, rubies, a platinum necklace and other jewelry and assets in anticipation that they could be used to pay for legal fees and possible penalties.
Along with three brothers, Prakash Hinduja leads an industrial conglomerate in sectors including information technology, media, power, real estate and health care. Forbes magazine has put the Hinduja family’s net worth at some $20 billion.
The family set up residence in Switzerland in the 1980s, and Hinduja was convicted in 2007 on similar charges. A separate tax case brought by Swiss authorities is pending against Hinduja, who obtained Swiss citizenship in 2000.
In this case, the court said the four were guilty of exploiting the workers and providing unauthorized employment, giving meager if any health benefits and paying wages that were less than one-tenth the pay for such jobs in Switzerland.
Prosecutors said workers described a “climate of fear” instituted by Kamal Hinduja. They were forced to work with little or no vacation time, and worked even later hours for receptions. They slept in the basement, sometimes on a mattress on the floor.




 


Amnesty, US criticize jailing of Eswatini pro-democracy MPs

Updated 3 sec ago
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Amnesty, US criticize jailing of Eswatini pro-democracy MPs

JOHANNESBURG: Amnesty International on Tuesday condemned jail sentences handed to two pro-democracy lawmakers in Eswatini as an attempt to suppress peaceful dissent and called for the men to be unconditionally released.
The US embassy in the small southern African kingdom also raised concerns about the sentences announced Monday, three years after Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube were arrested on charges of murder and “terrorism.”
The Eswatini High Court sentenced Mabuza to 25 years in jail and Dube to 18 years. Both had pleaded innocent to all charges ahead of their conviction in 2023.
They were arrested in July 2021 during pro-democracy protests that were violently quashed by police, leaving dozens dead.
“Eswatini authorities must immediately quash the unjust and baseless convictions and sentences of the former members of parliament,” said Amnesty deputy regional director for East and Southern Africa, Vongai Chikwanda.
“Their convictions and sentences stem solely from the peaceful exercise of their human rights,” Chikwanda said in a statement, labelling the jailing a “blatant attempt to suppress peaceful dissent.”
The former MPs had advocated for pro-democracy reforms in the kingdom of around 1.2 million people, most of whom live in poverty. King Mswati III, in power since 1986, can veto any legislation, appoints the prime minister and cabinet, and is constitutionally above the law.
The US embassy also raised concerns about the sentences handed to the former MPs, saying in a statement: “There has been widespread reporting that their detentions are arbitrary, based on groundless charges of murder and terrorism.”
The pair “were targeted for bravery calling for political and human rights reform in the country,” it said, urging the government not to use courts to “suppress dissenting views.”
In its reaction, the government said the US statement was an “affront” and the embassy should “respect the due process of the law.”
“Casting aspersions on the independence of our judiciary after delivery of judgment by a court of competent jurisdiction is an affront to the rule of law,” spokesman Alpheous Nxumalo said in a statement.

Six foreign nationals found dead in Bangkok hotel, Thai PM orders probe

Updated 39 min 25 sec ago
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Six foreign nationals found dead in Bangkok hotel, Thai PM orders probe

  • Group — three men and three women — checked into different rooms but their bodies were found in one room, which did not show any signs of struggle
  • Thai PM Srettha Thavisin, who visited the hotel late on Tuesday with senior police officials, has ordered a swift investigation

BANGKOK: Thai police are investigating the deaths of six foreign nationals whose bodies were found in a room at an upmarket hotel in Bangkok on Tuesday, including looking for a seventh person in connection with the incident.
All six, who were of Vietnamese descent, with two carrying US passports, checked into Bangkok’s Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel at two separate times after arriving on Saturday and Sunday, police official Thiti Saengsawang told reporters.
The group — three men and three women — checked into different rooms but their bodies were found in one room, which did not show any signs of struggle, he said.
“This was not self harm, but someone caused the deaths,” said Thiti, adding that police were looking for a seventh person connected with the group.
“We are tracing every step since they got off the plane.”
Police officers found the bodies after a call from the hotel staff at around 5.30 p.m. (1030 GMT) reporting that there had been deaths, the Thai police said in a statement.
Thai prime minister Srettha Thavisin, who visited the hotel late on Tuesday with senior police officials, ordered a swift investigation on the matter, the government said in a statement.
“The prime minister has ordered all agencies to urgently take action to avoid impact on tourism,” it said.
The US and Vietnamese embassies in Bangkok did not respond to calls from Reuters.
The Grand Hyatt Erawan, which has over 350 rooms and is located in a popular tourist district in the Thai capital known for luxury shopping and restaurants, also did not immediately respond to calls or an email seeking comment.
Tourism serves as a key driver for Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, with the government expecting 35 million foreign arrivals this year after 28 million visited the country in 2023, spending 1.2 trillion baht ($33.71 billion).
The tourism sector was shaken last October by a shooting spree at a luxury shopping mall, close to the Hyatt, in which two foreigners were killed, prompting government measures to improve confidence, including ramping up security at popular locations.
To woo more visitors, the government has offered longer visa stay periods and waivers for several nationalities.


King Salman Global Academy trains Indian scholars in Arabic teaching

Updated 16 July 2024
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King Salman Global Academy trains Indian scholars in Arabic teaching

  • Fifty lecturers take part in four-day course at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi
  • Training is part of Saudi-led language month to promote learning Arabic

NEW DELHI: A top Saudi linguistic institution, the King Salman Global Academy for Arabic Language, launched special training sessions for instructors teaching Arabic at Indian universities.

Some 50 lecturers are taking part in the four-day course held in New Delhi at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which is the main host of the KSGAAL’s ongoing Arabic Language Month.

The event is aimed at developing and improving the teaching of Arabic for non-native speakers in the world’s most populous nation, and kicked off online in late June, running until July 26.

It includes both online and offline competitions and sessions for students and lecturers.

“The teaching of the Arabic language has transformed significantly. There are a number of institutions which teach pedagogy of Arabic according to the latest trends,” Prof. Mujeebur Rahman, head of the Centre of Arabic and African Studies at JNU, told Arab News.

“There is lots of research in the Arab world, published materials also, which Arabic teachers in the (Indian) universities are not aware of and not equipped with ... So, the purpose of this training is to apprise the teachers of the latest pedagogy of Arabic teaching as a foreign language ... and also tell them about the technological tools that are available.”

Nine Saudi experts in different domains of language teaching were conducting the course under the supervision of Dr. Abdullah bin Saleh Al-Washmi, the academy’s secretary-general.

All aspects of teaching Arabic to non-native speakers are covered in the training to help teachers step up their skills.

“This would be beneficial to them when they go to classrooms and teach students. How to communicate and how to improve their own performance in the classroom, how to derive better outcomes from their teaching,” Rahman said.

Dr. Mohammad Eisha, Arabic translator and lector, said the training was helpful for keeping up with the newest teaching practices.

“There is a method to learn a foreign language and there is some technique ... training like this helps us,” he told Arab News.

“This is a good initiative by the King Salman Academy and it will boost career opportunities, and it will also stimulate learners to learn in a better way.”

Mohammad Ajmal, assistant professor at the Centre of Arabic and African Studies at the JNU, is also taking the training and said the course would help readers refine their skills.

“We are non-native speakers of the language. We will learn how to use technology in imparting language learning skills, and what can be the easy way of learning the language,” he said.

“I feel that the training will help me to be a better educator of the Arabic language.”


Beijing, Manila establish hotline to prevent clashes in disputed South China Sea

Updated 16 July 2024
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Beijing, Manila establish hotline to prevent clashes in disputed South China Sea

  • The territorial disputes have persisted since last year, sparking fears of a larger armed conflict that could involve the US
  • There was also a plan to set up a new communication channel between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards

MANILA: A recently signed agreement will open a direct line of communication between the presidential offices of China and the Philippines to help prevent any new confrontation from spiraling out of control in the disputed South China Sea, according to highlights of the accord seen by The Associated Press on Tuesday.
China and the Philippines have created such emergency telephone hotlines at lower levels in the past to better manage disputes, particularly in two fiercely disputed shoals where the Philippines has accused Chinese forces of increasingly hostile actions and China says Philippine ships have encroached despite repeated warnings.
The territorial disputes, however, have persisted since last year, sparking fears of a larger armed conflict that could involve the United States, which has repeatedly warned that it’s obligated to defend the Philippines, a key Asian treaty ally, if Filipino forces come under attack in the disputed waters.
US Gen. Charles Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Philippine military chief Gen. Romeo Brawner in Manila on Tuesday and discussed ways to further boost defense ties, enhance the militaries’ ability to operate jointly and ensure regional ability, the Philippine military said.
During a confrontation between Chinese and Philippine forces at the Philippines-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in August 2023, the Philippine government said it was unable to reach Chinese officials through an established “maritime communication mechanism” for several hours. That emergency telephone hotline was arranged after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in January 2023.
Chinese and Philippine officials dealing with the territorial disputes held talks in Manila on July 2, following a violent confrontation at the Second Thomas Shoal in which Chinese coast guard personnel reportedly wielded knives, an axe and improvised spears and Philippine navy personnel were injured. The Chinese forces also seized seven Philippine navy rifles, said Brawner, who demanded China return the firearms and pay for damages.
Both sides “recognized the need to strengthen the bilateral maritime communication mechanism on the South China Sea” and signed an arrangement “on improving Philippines-China maritime communication mechanisms,” the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said in a statement after the talks in Manila, but did not provide a copy or details of the agreement.
A copy of the agreement’s highlights, seen by the AP, said it “provides several channels for communication between the Philippines and China, specifically on maritime issues, through the representatives to be designated by their leaders.”
The hotline talks could also be done “through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs counterparts, including at the foreign minister and vice foreign minister levels or through their designated representatives,” it said, and added without elaborating that Philippine officials were “in discussions with the Chinese side on the guidelines that will govern the implementation of this arrangement.”
There was also a plan to set up a new communication channel between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards “once the corresponding memorandum of understanding” between them is concluded, according to the agreement.
During the talks in Manila, China and the Philippines agreed on two other confidence-boosting steps to intensify “cooperation between their respective coast guard authorities” and the possible convening of a maritime forum between Chinese and Philippine scientists and academic leaders.
“Both sides recognized that there is a need to restore trust, rebuild confidence and create conditions conducive to productive dialogue and interaction,” the Philippine department of foreign affairs statement said. It added that China and the Philippines “affirmed their commitment to de-escalate tensions without prejudice to their respective positions.”
It said that “there was substantial progress on developing measures to manage the situation at sea,” but acknowledged that “significant differences remain.”


A North Korean diplomat in Cuba defected to South Korea in November, a possible blow to leader Kim

Updated 16 July 2024
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A North Korean diplomat in Cuba defected to South Korea in November, a possible blow to leader Kim

  • National Intelligence Service said media reports on the defection of a North Korean counselor of political affairs in Cuba were true
  • Ri defected before South Korea and Cuba established diplomatic ties in February

SEOUL, South Korea: South Korea’s spy agency said Tuesday that a senior North Korea diplomat based in Cuba has fled to South Korea, the latest defection by members of the North’s ruling elite that likely hurt leader Kim Jong Un’s push to bolster his leadership.
The National Intelligence Service said media reports on the defection of a North Korean counselor of political affairs in Cuba were true. A brief statement by the NIS public affairs office gave no further details.
South Korea’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported earlier Tuesday that diplomat Ri Il Kyu fled to South Korea with his wife and children in November.
Chosun Ilbo cited Ri as telling the newspaper in an interview that he had decided to defect because of what he called disillusionment with North Korea’s political system, an unfair job evaluation by Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry, and the ministry’s disapproval of his hopes to visit Mexico to treat his neural damage. He said that hospitals in Cuba didn’t have the necessary medical equipment to treat his health problem due to international sanctions.
Other South Korean media outlets carried similar reports later Tuesday.
North Korea didn’t immediately respond to South Korea’s announcement of Ri’s defection. North Korea has previously expressed fury over some high-profile defections by accusing South Korea of kidnapping or enticing its citizens to defect. It has also described some defectors as traitors or criminals who fled to avoid punishment.
Ri defected before South Korea and Cuba established diplomatic ties in February, an event that experts say likely posed a political blow to North Korea, whose diplomatic footing is largely dependent on a small number of Cold War-era allies like Cuba.
The Chosun report said Ri had been engaged in efforts to block Cuba from opening diplomatic ties with South Korea until his defection. The report said Ri won a commendation from Kim Jong Un for his role in negotiations with Panama that led to the release of a ship detained in 2013 for allegedly carrying banned items like missiles and fighter jet parts. The report said Ri was then a third secretary of the North Korean Embassy in Cuba.
About 34,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea to avoid economic hardship and political suppression, mostly since the late 1990s. A majority of them are women from the North’s poorer northern regions. But the number of highly educated North Koreans with professional jobs escaping to South Korea has steadily increased recently.
In 2023, about 10 North Koreans categorized as members of the country’s elite group resettled in South Korea — more than in recent years, according South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Ministry officials have said that an increase in high-level defections were likely caused by North Korea’s pandemic-related economic difficulties and its pushes to reinforce state control of its people. Those who had to stay abroad longer than initially scheduled due to COVID-19 curbs were exposed to freer foreign cultures for an extended period.
“This high-level defection adds insult to injury for North Korea, as Ri was instrumental in representing Pyongyang’s interests in Havana,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“The Kim regime is no doubt taking measures to make it more difficult for diplomats overseas to defect, but increased repression is likely to further isolate Pyongyang and may actually encourage more defections,” Easley said.
Moon Seong Mook, an expert with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said news of high-level defections like Ri’s would spread to North Korean diplomats and others, potentially dealing a big blow to Kim — though it won’t likely lead to a regime collapse anytime soon.
Few North Korea monitoring groups question Kim’s grip on power. But observers say Kim is grappling with chronic economic difficulties, the influence of South Korean pop cultures and the expansion of the US-South Korean military cooperation.
The most high-profile defection in recent years happened in 2016, when Tae Yongho, then a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, arrived in South Korea. He said that he decided to flee because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea as he also fell into “despair” over Kim’s execution of officials and his pursuit of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has called him “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes. Tae was elected to South Korea’s parliament in 2020.
In 2019, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, arrived in South Korea. Also in 2019, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait came to South Korea with his family.
In recent months, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have soared over North Korea’s launches of trash-carrying balloons toward South Korea and its continuation of missile tests. North Korea says its balloon campaigns were a tit-for-tat action against South Korean activists floating political leaflets via their own balloons.
On Tuesday, Kim’s sister and senior official, Kim Yo Jong, warned South Korea of unspecified “gruesome” consequences, saying that South Korean-sent leaflets were found again in the North. She issued a similar warning on Sunday. South Korea responded to North Korea’s earlier balloon activities by suspending a 2018 tension-reduction deal with North Korea.