Thursday, August 30, 2001

Rights in question
in sweatshop trial

Owner Kil Soo Lee is pushing
to have his trial relocated
to American Samoa

By Jean Christensen
Associated Press

A federal judge could rule as early as today on a motion to dismiss the federal case against the owner of an American Samoan factory who is accused of running a sweatshop.

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway listened Tuesday to the public defender for Kil Soo Lee and attorneys for the federal government explain what sort of rights Lee would have if he were to be tried in American Samoa instead of in Hawaii.

Lee is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 25 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu on charges of involuntary servitude and forced labor. He is accused of holding workers from Vietnam against their will and underpaying them at his now-closed Daewoosa Samoa Ltd. garment factory in the U.S. territory 2,300 miles south of Hawaii.

Lee's public defender, Alexander Silvert, argued Monday that Hawaii's federal court does not have jurisdiction in the case. Although American Samoa does not have a federal court system, Silvert said the High Court of American Samoa has been implicitly vested by Congress with the power to hear federal criminal cases and that Lee has a constitutional right to be tried where the alleged crimes occurred.

The judge asked attorneys to return to court Tuesday to answer questions about the American Samoan legal system but said her questions were not an indication of how she will rule on the dismissal request.

Attorneys for the Justice Department said Lee would not have the same rights accorded other federal defendants, including the right of appeal, if he were to be tried in American Samoa. But Silvert said the territorial court adheres to federal standards.

Mollway said she was concerned about a "whipsaw effect" -- if Lee's motion for dismissal is granted and he is eventually tried in American Samoa and convicted, he could argue that his constitutional rights were violated because he did not have the same rights as he would have had had he been tried in an official federal court.

Since there is no explicit direction from Congress on whether the territorial court has authority to hear federal cases, Mollway said, "We're all trying to read tea leaves."

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