Three weeks ago, a video of Lensa Lelisa, an Ethiopian domestic worker in her twenties, caused a public stir in Lebanon. In the video, Lensa describes from her bed in the Serhal Hospital the torture and violence she says she suffered at the hands of her sponsors that prompted her to leave their home without permission by jumping from the balcony.

Subsequently, after Lensa was returned to her sponsors’ home, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation published a video in which the daughter of the “sponsor” denied the torture. The daughter relates that Lensa recorded the first video, in which she discussed the torture, because her fall from the balcony led to injuries that made her want to return to Ethiopia. Lensa then appears in the home and recants her first story, expresses her love for the family and her remorse, and repeats the story told by the daughter. Lensa repeated the second script when she, her sponsor, and a lawyer from the Protecting the Privacy of the Family and Worker Association [Himayat Khususiyyat al-‘A’ila wa-l-‘Amila] were hosted on the program LelNasher on Al Jadeed TV. In turn, the Facebook page This Is Lebanon published a new video in which Lensa’s aunt affirms that the young woman wanted to escape the torture and beatings.

Given the massive contradictions in Lensa’s case, The Legal Agenda contacted the activists who have pursued her case and taken the initiative to support her. These sources include This Is Lebanon, which took it upon itself to launch a campaign to support and pursue the case and publish videos concerning it. The Legal Agenda also communicated with several interested parties. These include: a source in the Ethiopian embassy (after the embassy itself could not be contacted), a source in the Internal Security Forces, the General Directorate of General Security, journalists who have followed the case since the very beginning, and associations that defend the rights of foreign female workers.

Having listened to the stories of all sides, The Legal Agenda has major doubts about the conclusions that the preliminary investigation reached. This case also reveals major holes in the system of investigation that is employed in cases wherein the worker is at the employer’s mercy because of the sponsorship [kafala] system, even in the most sensitive disputes that could arise between the two parties.

The First Six Months

Lensa came to Lebanon last July to work for a family that owns a renowned tailoring business. She joined two workers already working for the family, one who had not been there long and the other who had been there for approximately four years. In the first video published by This Is Lebanon, Lensa says, “From the very beginning, they were abusing me. I thought about trying to escape, but I was not allowed out of the house, not even to [go to] the store”. She adds, “They beat me every day with an electric cable and wrapped my hair around their hands and dragged me around the room. They smashed my head into the walls ... every day [the daughter] came after me with scissors and tried to cut me ... [the son] grabbed my hair and dragged me around the room, and he was pushing his fingers into my eyes. Every day he was planning how to attack me”. She did not inform the embassy because the Ethiopian who had been there for four years would tell the employer. Lensa adds, “The day I arrived in Lebanon, I called my family and didn’t talk to them again for four months ... After six months, my madam said she sent my salary [to Ethiopia], but I don’t know if she did or not”.

This last piece of information is corroborated by a Lebanese friend of Lensa’s aunt who has followed the situation closely while assisting the aunt. According to this friend, “During Lensa’s first six months in Lebanon, the aunt tried to contact her via the agency’s owner. However, the latter long obstructed this by saying that she is busy and would call back but never did”. Then, “The aunt received a call from the mother in Ethiopia, who said that they haven’t received any money and aren’t hearing any news about Lensa”. When the aunt contacted an Ethiopian friend who works with a recruitment agency and facilitated Lensa’s arrival in Lebanon, the latter contacted the agency and relayed the following response: “The girl has been here for exactly six months. The first two months [of her salary] are for the agency, so she is due four months from [the employer]”. The Ethiopian friend also relayed from the agency’s owner that, “The girl [Lensa] is all right now. You know that when [the worker is not all right], the sponsor is afraid to send money to her family. I don’t know if she’s acting like she’s [all right] now to get her money”. She also relayed that the agency’s owner advised Lensa’s sponsor not to transfer all the money: “Only transfer two months. Then they [Lensa’s family] will be quiet abroad”. That day, Lensa’s sponsor promised the agency owner (according to a voice recording attributed to the agency’s owner and obtained by The Legal Agenda) that she “plans today to take [Lensa] to speak with her family and transfer the money for just two months to them. It’s normal – that’s how the world and these laws work”.

The Day of the Incident

In the first video – the one in which Lensa discusses her torture – she states that the son struck her as he left the house and threatened that if she had not completed enough sewing by the time he returned, “you’ll see what I will do to you”. At that point, Lensa decided to “escape before he came home and hurt me”, according to the video.

Lensa’s “escape” occurred on March 11. She was immediately transported to the Serhal Hospital, where she stayed for approximately two weeks. She was then returned to the employers’ home. The Lebanese friend of Lensa’s aunt says that, “While the girl was in hospital, a Lebanese woman took sympathy on her and brought her juice. This caused a problem with her sponsors, who told the Lebanese woman not to intervene and that she has no business interacting with the girl”. At that point, “The woman withdrew from all contact with [Lensa] and asked an Ethiopian girl caring for an elderly man in the hospital to communicate with her as the situation was strange”. Lensa was able to “give the Ethiopian girl the number of her mother in her country, who directed her to the number of the aunt working in Lebanon”. The aunt received the call “on March 19 and went to the hospital at night with workers of the same nationality”. Subsequently, “The aunt was barred from visiting Lensa after she came to the hospital several times”.

While Lensa was in hospital, Internal Security came to investigate on the orders of Appellate Public Prosecutor in Mount Lebanon Judge Sami Sader. The investigation concluded that she fell from the workshop’s balcony while hanging out washing and she only accused the family so that she would be able to leave Lebanon. According to a source inside Internal Security, the investigation was based on “the testimony taken from Lensa in private; an inspection of the location of the incident, where a chair was overturned and clothes were hanging on the line; and the forensic doctor’s report, which refutes that she was tortured and confirms that she slipped and didn’t jump”. The source also mentions that two people connected to the embassy examined her with no evidence found that she’d been beaten. He adds, “When the [Ethiopian] workers and her aunt visited her, they convinced her to tell the torture story and told her that nobody [in Lebanon] would take care of her while she’s so injured”.

After Lensa returned to the home and amidst the media outcry prompted by the video of her discussing the torture, Public Prosecutor in Mount Lebanon Judge Ghada Aoun ordered the Internal Security Forces to further investigate. According to Internal Security sources, this time “the questioning occurred in the presence of a translator. Lensa repeated her statements. Likewise, the second forensic doctor’s report included the same conclusion, namely that she slipped from the balcony”. Notably, the security forces did not mention the presence of any Ethiopian woman working for the family besides the one who has done so for four years. Subsequently, nobody paid attention to the third worker’s absence from the investigation, a worker who – according to Lensa’s original story about torture – was supposed to jump after her but backed down after seeing what happened to her. Nobody seems to have interviewed her. Even people who visited Lensa after she returned to the home stated that they did not see this woman. Note also that the Public Prosecution charged the security forces with interviewing Lensa, but given the case’s complexity and the dangers that she may be facing, she should have been interviewed by a Public Prosecution judge directly, particularly to ascertain that she is not under pressure to recant her testimony or make certain statements rather than others.

When asked whether Internal Security interviewed the neighbors and the shops surrounding the workshop belonging to Lensa’s sponsor, the source in the security forces said, “There are reports by two forensic doctors settling the matter”. On the other hand, activist Hashim Adnan stated that during a protest in solidarity with Lensa that he helped organize in front of the workshop, many neighbors and owners of nearby shops came forward to say that “they had heard shouting in the workshop late at night – the workshop is also a place of residence”.

After one of the activists contacted General Security’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit, the head of General Security’s media bureau Brigadier General Nabil Hannoun explained to The Legal Agenda that an investigation is being opened and that “if it turns out to be a case of exploitation or trafficking, [Lensa] will be moved to a shelter”. When The Legal Agenda asked whether Lensa would be moved away from the family before the investigation to ensure that she expresses all her concerns, it found that this would only occur if the investigation reveals that she is a victim.

On the other hand, a source in the Ethiopian embassy told The Legal Agenda that “Lensa’s sponsors brought her to the embassy after removing her from the hospital. Because she couldn’t move, she was interviewed in the car”. Therefore, the consul did not interview her in private. Remarkably, the source in the embassy considered torture unlikely because “the members of the sponsoring family are very well-presented”. However, in another recording attributed to the owner of the recruitment agency, she states that “People from the embassy visited Lensa in the hospital and remained with her for about two hours”.

Civil Associations Intervene

Most of the people who took the initiative to help and support Lensa mentioned that they liaised with civil associations that defend foreign workers’ rights, particularly KAFA (Enough) Violence and Exploitation and Caritas.

Ghada Jabbour, the head of the Anti-Trafficking and Exploitation of Women Unit in KAFA, explains that, “The association refrains from intervening in a case if there’s another association providing the same service. As Caritas is pursuing the case, we cannot do so directly, but we are constantly coordinating with Caritas”. In this regard, it must also be noted that it is difficult for foreign workers to retain a lawyer when they are with their sponsors, which constitutes a fundamental obstacle preventing rights associations from performing their role defending this social group.

The Legal Agenda directed a series of questions to Caritas to determine whether it is closely following the investigations and guarantees provided to the worker. However, as of April 17, 2018, we have received no response. Note that the safe location to which Lensa is supposed to be moved if General Security’s investigation reveals that she is a victim is run by Caritas, according to Hannoun.

“Sponsorship” Conceals the Truth

Although the investigations have been ongoing since Lensa was taken to hospital, she remains under the family’s authority. She has not been provided with any safe space away from the family that would ensure that she does not return to work for them irrespective of her testimony.

In this regard, lawyer Ghida Frangieh says that, “This case confirms the seriousness of the concerns about the validity of investigations that occur with workers subject to the sponsorship system. This is because we cannot evaluate the circumstances of the investigation in isolation of the issues related to the sponsorship system, which deprives the worker of many fundamental guarantees enjoyed by any citizen”. Hence, Frangieh asks, “How can we confirm that her testimony about her relationship with the employer is free from coercion and psychological pressure when she is living with him, she will return to his home, and her fate is in his hands before, during, and possibly after the investigation?”

The sponsorship system is the system to which the General Directorate of General Security subjects foreign workers as a condition of residency. In this system, the employer – as the sponsor – is responsible for obtaining the residency permit. Consequently, domestic workers’ dependence on and subordination to their sponsors goes beyond the usual dependent relationship between employee and employer.

Expressing the reality of this subordination, Frangieh describes the sponsorship system as a “system of enslavement whereby the worker is subject to the employer’s will irrespective of how he treats her as she cannot resign, return to her country, or change jobs or employer without his will and consent”. In this sense, if the worker “wrongs her sponsor, he has every means of defending himself, particularly voiding the contract and returning her to her country”. On the other hand, if “the employer wrongs her, her only solution is to leave the home without his consent, which is currently considered a crime warranting arrest and deportation, usually without a trial”.

Hence, Frangieh stresses that, “Sponsorship neutralizes the will of the worker subordinate to her sponsor, and this system poses an obstacle to conducting a transparent and just investigation that uncovers the truth of the employer’s treatment, so long as the bodies overseeing the investigation do not provide the worker with additional guarantees”. These additional guarantees include, in particular, “alternative accommodation outside the sponsors’ home during the investigation; the right to change sponsors without the sponsor’s consent; the freedoms of movement, communication, and to consult a lawyer and a representative of the worker’s country and family; and the presence of a translator”.

Human Rights Watch: Investigating Abuse and Protecting the Worker from Retaliation

On April 6, 2018, Human Rights Watch published a report on Lensa’s case titled “Lebanon: Migrant Worker’s Abuse Account: Investigate Allegations, Retraction After Return to Workplace”. The report concludes that “Lebanon’s judiciary fails to hold employers accountable for abuses and that security agencies often did not adequately investigate claims of violence or abuse”. It deems that “Lebanon’s general prosecutor should ensure an adequate investigation into allegations that a migrant domestic worker suffered months of abuse before jumping from a balcony and injuring herself ... The investigation should ensure that the worker, Lensa Lelisa, an Ethiopian national, can speak to investigators privately and take all feasible measures to assure her physical safety and protect her from any possible retaliation”.

In the same report, Lama Fakih, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, expressed her concern that Lensa’s statements would be coerced now that she has returned to her employers’ home. She states that, “The investigation should ensure that Lelisa can give an accurate account of what happened to her, in a safe location away from her workplace, without fear of retaliation”.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.