Occasionally wiping away tears, a former prostitute told jurors Tuesday about the day she decided to stop working for Shahid Hassan Muslim.
Muslim had accused her of getting drugs from a man he didn’t want her to hang out with. Angry, he made her stand facing him with her hands out at her sides, she recalled.
“He punched me in the stomach hard,” she said. “He just grabbed me by the hair and kept punching me in the stomach. Afterward, he asked me what my punishment should be.
“I already knew he was going to take my money … because there was nothing left to take from me.”
Muslim, also known as “Sharp,” is on trial in federal court, accused of sex trafficking, kidnapping and witness tampering. Prosecutors say his prostitution ring included a dozen girls between ages 16 and 25. His trial began Tuesday after a federal jury of seven women and five men was selected.
In opening arguments, a prosecutor accused Muslim of being a pimp who kidnapped and had sex with women and under-aged girls and coerced them into selling their bodies up and down the East Coast.
“He often found them on the side of the road while it was raining or they were walking their dog and sold them on the idea of a family,” said Benjamin Hawk, a U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division trial attorney. “And in order to be a part of the family, they had to make money by selling their bodies.”
During the trial, Hawk told jurors, “you’re going to hear what happened if they stepped out of line.”
But defense attorney Roderick Wright said his client was the victim of overzealous investigators and prostitutes working on their own who were trying to shift the blame to avoid prosecution.
“This is not about power and exploitation, this is about self-preservation,” Wright said. These are “young ladies who got caught up in a sting operation, and there was a target placed square on the chest of (Muslim).”
The trial, expected to last until the end of the week, offers a glimpse into sex trafficking in Charlotte, which experts say is on the rise.
Prosecution witnesses said Muslim used Backpage.com to post salacious ads of his prostitutes.
The ads used pictures lifted from the Internet. One began: “I’m the girl you see in the magazines.”
Clients, or Johns, would call or e-mail to set up meetings in hotel rooms, often near interstate highways or major roads.
The witness who accused Muslim of beating her told jurors she met him through a mutual friend and worked for him for nearly a year. She made $100 if clients came to her and $150 if she had to travel to them.
In most instances, she said, Muslim or someone else in his organization would drop her off at a hotel. After the sex, she would turn over her money to Muslim, ostensibly for protection. Eventually, they settled on a 50-50 split.
“I felt like I needed some kind of protection,” she said. “I was afraid of what was going to happen if I did it alone.”
But eventually, she said, she grew fearful of Muslim. He was violent with her and the other women, especially if they kept money from him, she said, and they were brutalized for speaking ill of him.
“Once, we were in a room talking about Sharp, and he overheard us and got physical with us,” she said. “I think he punched (another woman) and he punched me. He was letting us know who was boss.”