VANCOUVER - A wealthy British Columbia businesswoman accused of luring a young Tanzanian woman to Canada and forcing her to work as a virtual domestic slave in her multimillion-dollar West Vancouver mansion has been found not guilty of human trafficking.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon said in announcing her decision Friday that the testimony of Mumtaz Ladha's accuser was simply not credible.
"I wish to emphasize that this is not a case in which I am left with only a reasonable doubt about whether the offences occurred," Fenlon said.
"I am left, rather, with the conviction that the allegations made by (the complainant) are improbable. On the evidence before me, it appears far more likely that the complainant took advantage of Mr. Ladha's generosity in order to come to Canada and then took advantage of an opportunity she saw to remain in this country, showing a callous disregard for her benefactor and the truth in the process."
The verdict brought to a close a process that began more than four years ago when the complainant went to police.
About two dozen of Ladha's friends and family erupted in clapping, cheers and tears as the judge read out her decision in the case against the 60-year-old woman.
Ladha, in her customary two-piece suit, was stoic in the prisoner's box until after the judge left the courtroom, and then wiped away tears as she hugged her two lawyers.
She was charged under the Immigration Act with human trafficking, employing a foreign national without authorization, and two counts of misrepresenting facts to immigration officials in applications for Canadian visas.
The judge heard the woman worked for Ladha at a hair salon in Dar es Salaam, and she testified that she believed she was coming to Canada to work in a salon here.
After she arrived with Ladha in August 2008, the woman testified, she worked 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week until she fled the home for a women's shelter in June 2009.
Several witnesses testified to seeing the young woman carrying bags, washing windows or otherwise working around the house.
"Their evidence is consistent with the complainant working as a maid, but it is also consistent with a house guest helping out while on an extended visit," Fenlon said.
The judge laid out a litany of discrepancies and unlikely claims by the complainant, and several claims the woman made and then retracted on the witness stand when presented with photographic or other evidence.
"I conclude that the complainant is not a credible witness in many respects," Fenlon said.
On the other hand, the judge said Ladha's statement to police upon being informed of the allegations had the "unmistakable ring of truth."
In it, she expressed shock and defended the complainant as "an innocent child who must have been pushed to do this."
Ladha had no motive for luring the complainant and forcing her into servitude, Fenlon said.
"Mrs. Ladha is a wealthy woman, who has employed housekeepers in the past. Two testified at trial. They both signed contracts, worked eight-hour days and were paid. Why would Mrs. Ladha suddenly need to bring in a foreign national to work 18-hour days without pay?" Fenlon asked.
"In contrast, the complainant had a motive to lie about her circumstances so that she could remain in Canada."
Ladha declined requests for an interview following the verdict. Her lawyers said she wanted to celebrate with her family and put the ordeal behind her.
Eric Gottardi, one member of Ladha's legal team, said the judgment was a complete exoneration.
"There shouldn't be, and there aren't in the mind of the judge, any lingering doubts about what took place in this case," he said outside the court.
Just the allegations of such a serious crime can have immediate and long-lasting impacts on accused people, he said.
"It's been horrible for her and the entire family. This is a very emotional day. It's a day that's been a long time coming."
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