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Human rights activists approve of U.S. report on human smuggling

Human rights activists in Gulf Arab countries applauded Washington's exposure of human smuggling bringing a scourge of forced labor, prostitution and other abuses to the energy-rich U.S. allies.

But one Kuwaiti lawmaker harshly criticized the U.S. State Department for issuing the report, saying Washington should be more concerned with the hundreds of prisoners held without charge at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. terror detention facility in Cuba.

"He whose house is made of glass shouldn't be throwing stones," Parliament speaker Jassem al-Kharafi was quoted as saying by the state-owned Kuwait News Agency.

Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman were four of seven newly blacklisted countries on the State Department's list of 16 worst offenders in human trafficking. Algeria, Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia also were listed for the first time in the annual "Trafficking in Persons Report" along with perennial offenders like Iran, Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

All 16 face economic sanctions if they do not improve their laws and conduct.

Rights activists in the newly named Gulf countries said it was about time the U.S. pointed its finger at the four friendly Arab governments, three of which host American military bases, for not doing enough to stop their share of global human traffickers who move 800,000 people, 80 percent of them women and up to half children, across international borders annually.

"America has said it straight and this is a good thing," said Ali al-Baghli of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights. "Hopefully this will open the eyes of our government."

International organizations have for years criticized wealthy Gulf countries for exploiting the millions of migrant laborers and domestic workers their societies rely on for menial work. Most of the migrants legally enter the countries after paying sponsors and middlemen who arrange work visas. Many remain stuck in debt for years in countries with no minimum wage, no right to form unions and often brutal living and working conditions.

The report said labor laws were not protecting foreign workers, largely from south and southeast Asia, and the authorities were not seriously investigating widespread abuse.

Bahrain, the report said, "made no discernible progress in preventing trafficking this year." It criticized the Gulf island kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, for failing to crack down on human traffickers who are bringing in men, women and children for forced labor or prostitution.

The Bahraini government did not immediately comment on the report.

"We have no law that criminalizes human smuggling," said Sabika al-Najar of Bahrain's Human Rights Society. "We see women on TV being arrested for prostitution, but these women have sponsors and these people are not punished."

On Kuwait, the report said it had "made modest progress in preventing trafficking in persons this year." But "Kuwaiti efforts to improve its protection of victims of human trafficking had little effect."

Al-Baghli said he expected little action in Kuwait in response to report. He said reforms are unpopular because "correcting these wrongs will mean fewer privileges for Kuwaitis. Neither the government nor the parliament cares."

Qatar, home to U.S. military command headquarters, was criticized for failing to outlaw all forms of human trafficking and for producing only two convictions among numerous cases of alleged abuse of domestic servants, according to the report.

Officials at the National Office for Combating Trafficking in Humans in Doha said they were not aware of the report.

But Sadoon al-Hyal, a consultant at the office, said on Monday that Qatar was preparing new legislation to combat human trafficking.

Oman was cited for not applying and enforcing existing laws against human trafficking as well as failing to distribute pamphlets aimed at educating foreign workers about their rights, the report said.

Oman government officials did not immediately comment on the report.

Despite the praise from human rights activists, Kuwaiti political scientist Ahmed al-Baghdadi said the report was likely to be useless because it was unlikely that the State Department would enforce its findings.

"There are no principles in foreign policy, there are only interests," al-Baghdadi said. "At the end of the day, what will the Americans do? Without Kuwait they have nowhere to cross into Iraq."

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