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BY JIM DOOLEY – The 44 victims in the Aloun Farms human trafficking case now pending in federal court came within days of receiving $192,000 in restitution but the money is now being returned to the defendants.

The operators of Aloun Farms in Waipahu, brothers Alec and Mike Sou, won a court ruling this morning that the restitution money they deposited with the U.S. District Court Clerk in August must now be returned to them.

The funds were deposited after the Sous pleaded guilty in the case but last month the brothers withdrew the pleas and are scheduled to go to trial next month.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cushman argued against return of the money, saying the criminal case may end in a new plea deal with the Sous, which will still require payment of restitution to the workers.

“There are 44 victims. A lot of them were counting on the money to repay their debts and return home,” Cushman told Dist. Judge Susan Oki Mollway.

“I feel for them,” Mollway said of the victims. “But I don’t have the law that allows me to transfer the money to them.”

Defense attorneys Eric Seitz and Howard Luke asked for return of the money, saying the Sous now need the cash to pay their legal expenses.

Private attorney Clare Hanusz, who represents some of the Thai workers, said her clients had been within days of receiving some $8,000 each in restitution before the Judge rejected the plea agreement and the Sous then withdrew their guilty pleas.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Hanusz said outside court. “They’d all made plans for the money.”

Some of the workers are faced with losing family plots of land in Thailand, she said.

“We were encouraged to hear that there’s still a chance of a plea agreement,” Hanusz said, but noted that the original restitution funds may be spent while plea negotiations are under way.

Cushman said in court papers that the government and the Sous “are trying to work toward a pre-trial resolution of this matter.”

Any plea deal “would include restitution being paid to the victims,” Cushman said.

The government alleges that the workers were illegally forced to pay their own airfare to Hawaii in 2004, had their passports confiscated, were not paid what they were owed, and were kept from the outside world via escorts, strict rules and the threat of deportation.

The original indictment says workers paid recruitment fees of $15,000 and $22,500 – an estimated 15 to 22 years of their typical annual income – through high-interest loans secured with family homes and farmland.

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Jim Dooley joined the Hawaii Reporter staff as an investigative reporter in October 2010. Before that, he has worked as a print and television reporter in Hawaii since 1973, beginning as a wire service reporter with United Press International. He joined Honolulu Advertiser in 1974, working as general assignment and City Hall reporter until 1978. In 1978, he moved to full-time investigative reporting in for The Advertiser; he joined KITV news in 1996 as investigative reporter. Jim returned to Advertiser 2001, working as investigative reporter and court reporter until 2010. Reach him at Jim@hawaiireporter.com