Evidence problems beset RI trial of UAE officer

July 21, 2011 - 6:45 PM
Arab Officer Human Trafficing

United Arab Emirates Col. Arif Mohamed Saeed Mohamed Al-Ali enters Federal Court in Providence, R.I., Tuesday afternoon, July 19, 2011. The trial of a United Arab Emirates naval officer accused of keeping an unpaid servant in his Rhode Island home was put on hold for two days after the defense raised concerns about the accuracy of the translation service provided by an interpreter assisting the prosecution's star witness. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The case against a United Arab Emirates naval officer accused of keeping an unpaid servant hit another major roadblock Thursday after the defense alleged that the government may have broken rules about sharing evidence.

U.S. Chief Judge Mary M. Lisi is expected to hear arguments on Friday as to how to proceed with the trial of Col. Arif Mohamed Saeed Mohamed Al-Ali. Defense attorney Robert C. Corrente flagged multiple examples where he said he was not provided with evidence the government collected during its investigation.

The prosecution has already been beset with problems with an interpreter provided to Al-Ali's former servant, Elizabeth Cabitla Ballesteros. On Thursday, Lisi also threw out testimony Ballesteros delivered Monday, citing the interpreter's failure to relay the questions posed to the witness and her responses verbatim.

Prosecutors hired the interpreter for Ballesteros, who is from the Philippines and speaks a dialect of Tagalog. Lisi said the government is looking for a new interpreter to assist Ballesteros; she will testify again later in the trial.

Al-Ali is accused of withholding Ballesteros' wages, making her work long hours, taking her passport and keeping her from speaking to outsiders while working for him in his Rhode Island home while he attended the Naval War College in Newport.

The evidence sharing issues center on text messages between Ballesteros and another Filipino woman, Cecelia Heredya. Ballesteros met Heredya in August 2010 during a picnic for foreign military officers attending the war college. Ballesteros provided Heredya with a piece of paper with her cell phone on it and asked for help.

The women exchanges text messages in the weeks leading up to Ballesteros' escape from Al-Ali's home in East Greenwich on Oct. 7, 2010.

Two translations of the text messages were produced. One translation was done by a lawyer for Ballesteros in New York. The other was done by a translator hired by federal prosecutors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Rogers said in court the translations were identical. Corrente said he did not receive a copy of the translation provided by the translator retained by prosecutors until Thursday. After comparing the two versions, he said they were "completely different."

Rogers also acknowledged Corrente was not provided with text messages downloaded from Heredya's phone in February.

Incidents of Filipino servants escaping their employers in the United States were the subject of one text message between the two women, Corrente said. He also said translations of six of the text messages sent by Ballesteros are missing.

Corrente also said the defense had been informed that text messages had been downloaded from Ballesteros' cell phone, but she left the phone at Al-Ali's home when she escaped and it was not retrieved.

Corrente also grilled Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Lina Awad about photos taken inside Al-Ali's home that were entered into evidence. Awad testified the photos were taken by a Department of Homeland Security official while agents were searching Al-Ali's home in February.

"You just made that up," Corrente said, adding that he had provided the photos, which he said were taken by Al-Ali's son, to the government.