A New Judicial Precedent: Charges Laid for the Death of a Neglected Domestic Worker

2023-08-22    |   

A New Judicial Precedent: Charges Laid for the Death of a Neglected Domestic Worker

Recently, it emerged that the Public Prosecution in Lebanon’s Bekaa governorate has taken action against the employer of an Ethiopian domestic worker who died in a hospital in the region. Public Prosecutor Moneef Barakat charged the employer with causing death under Article 550 of the Penal Code, punishable by no less than five years of hard labor. The Public Prosecution alleges that the employer caused her death without homicidal intent via acts of violence and neglect of his responsibility to provide her treatment. This is the first decision of its kind when it comes to deaths among domestic workers, which are usually deemed suicides or go uninvestigated in the absence of evidence of an immediate attack or obvious injury.


Barakat charged not only the employer but also the medical examiner who neglected to mention the bruises and scratches on the worker’s body after examining it. Barakat cited Article 466 of the Penal Code (delivering a false testimony to be presented to the public authorities), which is punishable by two months to two years of imprisonment.


The Grounds and Details of the Case


The Legal Agenda learned that on 6 July 2023, Ethiopian worker Mulu Mikasha Naghasi, born in 1988, was taken to Dr. Hamed Farhat Hospital in Kamid al-Lawz, West Bekaa, in critical condition. She was suffering from very low blood pressure, a high temperature, physical exhaustion making movement difficult, and – most importantly – acute, seemingly unbearable pains. “In short, she was practically moribund”, medical sources told the Legal Agenda. An hour elapsed before Mulu passed away. In the town of Sultan Yacoub, where she worked throughout her seven years in Lebanon, it is said that she never left her employers’ home, not even to visit her family.


Following Mulu’s death, the hospital called the Bayader al-Adas police station – the closest to Sultan Yacoub. A medical examiner was asked to examine the body and file an investigation report on the incident. Ultimately, his report indicated that she died of an illness, probably cancer. Despite this report and the absence of any obvious immediate and violent attack that might have caused her death, the station unprecedentedly expanded the investigation under Barakat’s supervision, who sent a forensics team to examine her body. As soon as the team arrived at the hospital, the medical examiner returned to the station, seeking to add several details to his original report on the pretext that he had forgotten to include them. After the forensic team found scratches and bruises on Mulu’s body, the employer and medical examiner were immediately detained, and Barakat tasked another medical examiner – Said Tarabaih – with reexamining the body and writing another report.


Tarabaih, the Legal Agenda learned, noted abrasions and scratches on Mulu’s face, head, and back that had been made approximately ten days before her death. He deemed them evidence of violence as she could not have struck her own back. At Barakat’s request, Tarabaih took blood samples and sent them to a laboratory in Beirut, where it was discovered that Mulu suffered from a bone marrow disease impairing blood cell production. This medical condition does not emerge and kill the patient within a single day, as Mulu’s employer claimed. Tarabaih’s medical report, which he wrote after the bloodwork results came in, indicated that if Mulu had received bloodwork and her health had been monitored, she may not have met the same fate. However, her employer claimed that she had no symptoms and that, “She got sick just a few days ago, and her temperature rose”. The Legal Agenda contacted Tarabaih, but he declined to make a statement because the case is in the judiciary’s hands.


Given these facts, the Public Prosecution appealed an earlier decision by Bekaa Investigating Judge Muhammad Salam to release the employer before the Indictment Chamber, which admitted the appeal. In light of the criminal investigation, the Public Prosecution also modified the charge against the employer from “withholding assistance from a person in a serious condition” (Article 567 of the Penal Code) to causing death via beating, violence, rough treatment, or other deliberate act without homicidal intent (Article 550 of the Penal Code). While the former offense is punishable by no more than one year of imprisonment, the latter is punishable by no less than seven years in this case because of aggravating circumstances. These circumstances include the possibility that the employer committed acts of torture or brutality against the worker (as evidenced by the bruises on the body) and the failure to secure medical aid for the pains possibly pervading her body because of her illness. These exploitative conditions, which may have included forcing Mulu to continue working for seven years despite her incurable illness, demand further investigation – specifically to determine whether her pay was withheld, she was deprived of liberty, she was subject to forced labor, or she was denied food.


Meanwhile, continuing to prosecute the original medical examiner under Article 466 of the Penal Code would require the investigating judge to obtain permission from the relevant administration (the Ministry of Justice). As a result, he was released after one day of “precautionary” detention.


The Legal Agenda contacted the Ethiopian Embassy, which said that it had not received any of the letters that the judiciary had posted to it. An embassy source charged with female Ethiopian workers’ affairs in Lebanon said that he went to Bayader al-Adas police station and asked for the report on the investigation into Mulu’s death but was told to consult the judiciary. “We were asked to collect the worker’s body, but we want to know what happened before she died,” he said. He added that the embassy will explore what steps to take after it obtains the file.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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