Owners of Aloun Farms ask judge to throw out forced labor charges

Published: Jul. 25, 2011 at 5:51 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 26, 2011 at 12:15 AM HST
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Mike Sou (in Aloha shirt)
Mike Sou (in Aloha shirt)
Thomas Otake
Thomas Otake
Alec Sou (in Aloha shirt)
Alec Sou (in Aloha shirt)
Tom Bienert
Tom Bienert

By Minna Sugimoto - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two days before the start of jury selection in their high-profile human trafficking case, the owners of Aloun Farms have asked a federal judge to dismiss more than half a dozen charges against them.

It's been quite a roller coaster ride for the parties in the case. Defendants Alec and Mike Sou originally pleaded guilty and proceeded to sentencing. But it was back to square one after US District Judge Susan Mollway rejected their plea deal with prosecutors.

The brothers now maintain they didn't commit a crime at all.

After a two-year legal journey filled with twists and turns, the owners of Aloun Farms say they're eager to begin jury selection in their forced labor case this week.

"On behalf of my client, Mike Sou, he is very eager and very happy that the trial is here," Thomas Otake, defense attorney, said. "These false allegations have been devastating to his business and to himself personally."

...but not so eager that they wouldn't make a last-ditch effort to get eight charges dismissed.

"There is no question that our clients did not physically hurt anybody, did not threaten to physically hurt anyone," Tom Bienert, Alec Sou's attorney, said. "There is no physical coercion of any type."

More than 40 farmers from Thailand each reportedly paid recruiters about $20,000 for the chance to work at Aloun and earn $9.42 an hour.

But the Sous are accused of underpaying them and forcing many of them to live in modified storage containers, and then threatening deportation and the loss of their work visas if they didn't follow the rules.

"This case is kind of an interesting one because it's about whether you can extend this law and call something forced labor when at most what you did was tell people what is the natural consequence of them not doing their job," Bienert said.

The forced labor statute at the time of the alleged offenses in 2004 to 2005 made it a crime to compel someone to work under the threat of "serious harm." Federal prosecutors say serious harm can be financial, not just physical, and that the threat of deportation created fear among the workers that their families back in Thailand would be left homeless and destitute.

"What is serious harm?" Bienert asked. "In this day and age in particular, all of us would be seriously harmed if we lose our job."

"If the government is allowed to apply this forced labor statute in a way that they're attempting to do so, I think a lot of employers need to be worried," Otake said.

In 2008, a few years after the alleged offenses, Congress amended the forced labor statute to include financial harm.

Prosecutors did not stop to speak with reporters Monday.

Mollway has yet to rule on the defense's motion to dismiss the charges.

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