SANTA ANA (REUTERS) - Lawyers for a Saudi princess accused of holding a Kenyan servant a virtual prisoner in her California home portrayed the servant on Monday as so well-treated that she had access to amenities like a spa and pool and went shopping at local malls.
The 42-year-old princess is charged with bringing the woman to the United States in May, confiscating her passport and paying her US$220 (S$280) a month to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, while essentially holding her captive in a situation Orange County's top prosecutor likened to slavery.
Meshael Alayban, described as a wife of Saudi Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz al Saud, was arrested earlier this month at her apartment in suburban Irvine, south-east of Los Angeles, and charged with human trafficking.
Authorities say the case came to light after the Kenyan woman, who is around 30 years old, escaped from the residence and flagged down a bus driver. Officers who went to the home found four Filipino women whose status was unclear, and prosecutors have said that more charges may be filed.
Lawyers for Alayban contradicted that version of events, saying the nannies working for their client's family had travelled first-class to the United States.
"These women had cellphones, Internet, Facebook, and the family even bought cable in their native language for them," attorneys Paul Meyer and Jennifer Keller said in a statement issued to reporters following a brief hearing in the case in Santa Ana.
"They enjoyed full use of the spa, gym, and pool and were often dropped off to shop alone at neighborhood malls, all paid for by the family," the statement said.
Many households in the Gulf Arab region, including Saudi Arabia, are highly dependent on domestic servants, including maids and nannies from African and South Asian countries who sometimes work long hours and may see their passports held by their employers.
Some employers have landed on the wrong side of the law in Western countries.
A Saudi princess was accused of mistreating a servant in Florida more than a decade ago, and another was taken to court in Boston in 2005 on charges of forced labor. Media reports said in both cases the women later pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
During Monday's court hearing in Orange County, which Alayban did not attend, Superior Court Judge Gerald Johnston postponed her arraignment on the charges for the second time at the request of defense attorneys, scheduling it for September.
Mr Johnston appeared irked that the princess was not present for the hearing, telling her lawyers that despite a legal waiver for her appearance he wanted her in court for all proceedings.
Alayban had previously been released after posting US$5 million bail but was ordered to remain in Southern California and wear a GPS device to monitor her whereabouts.
In announcing the charges earlier this month, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said it was the first case prosecuted in Orange County under California's voter-approved Proposition 35, which toughens penalties for human trafficking.
"It's been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation so slavery has been illegal in the United States and certainly in California all this time. It's disappointing to see it in use here,"Mr Rackauckas said at the time.