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A 12-year-old was asleep when a cruise steward came in; it was sexual assault, she said

By Chabeli Herrera • Updated Jan 12, 2018 at 11:12 AM

MIAMI — Sexual assault is one of the most reported crimes on cruise ships, but it’s not very often those cases involve a minor asleep in her cabin — and a ship crew member.

In a case filed in district court in Miami last week, that is just what one family from Iowa alleges happened to their then-12-year-old daughter.

The family was traveling on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Escape from Miami in February 2017 when they say a crew member sexually assaulted their daughter inside their cabin. In the suit, the girl is identified only by her initials.

On the second to last day of their weeklong cruise, Feb. 16, 2017, the family alleges their daughter was napping in their cabin at about 1 p.m.

That’s when their room steward, 30-year-old Rajkumar Panneer Selvam, entered the room.

The family alleges that the girl began to awake to someone rubbing the inside of her shorts along her upper right leg. The hand then moved underneath her underwear, “along her buttocks and vaginal area,” the suit alleges. When the girl rolled away and pulled the covers over her, the suit alleges Selvam continued to pursue her, moving his hands to rub the same area on her body.

At this point completely awake, the suit says the girl saw Selvam standing over her bed and identified him as the same man who regularly cleaned her cabin, No. 15858.

The suit alleges the girl was “in shock and frightened,” mumbling “no,” when Selvam asked if she would like her room cleaned. She got out of bed and went to the adjoining cabin to find her family and friends, who were not there, but encountered the steward again, the suit says. He again asks if she would like him to clean, to which she then replied “yes.”

The girl then informed her parents of what happened, who then reported the incident to the cruise line.

According to a criminal investigation that followed, Selvam was confined by the vessel’s captain until the ship docked. At that point, Norwegian informed the Federal Investigation Bureau of the incident and both the steward and the minor were interviewed.

Security footage provided by the cruise line to the FBI confirmed the general timeline of the girl’s statements, according to the criminal complaint. Selvam told law enforcement that he entered the cabin even though it is Norwegian’s policy that crew not enter a stateroom when a guest is inside. He stated that he touched the victim, also a violation of company policy.

Although Selvam first said he touched her on the shoulder, he later acknowledged that “he did, in fact, touch her buttocks and pubic region with his hand, skin to skin, while the minor victim was sleeping on the bed,” according to an affidavit of support filed in the criminal complaint by an FBI special agent who interviewed Selvam.

Selvam’s case ultimately went to a jury trial in Miami and he was found not guilty.

That’s why the family is now pursuing a civil case, said maritime lawyer John Hickey of Miami-based Hickey Law Firm, who represents the plaintiffs.

“The child is distraught, the parents are really distraught and they are concerned,” Hickey said.

In what the lawsuit calls actions that “constituted sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual abuse,” the girl’s parents are seeking in excess of $75,000 in damages from Norwegian for the emotional distress, bodily injury, and medical expenses for physicians, counselors and psychologists the incident caused.

The family argues that Norwegian was negligent in hiring the crew member without what the suit claims were appropriate vetting procedures.

The cruise line declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation, but Hickey said the line was cooperative with the criminal investigation.

Cruise lines typically rely on hiring agents to hire crew in foreign countries, many of them from Middle Eastern and Asian nations, where records may not be available digitally. Crew spend months at a time away from their families and work for lower minimum wages than American workers, though the jobs are often highly coveted.

Norwegian has dealt with instances of sexual assault on its ships in the past — as have its competitors.

In 2017 alone, through September, the most recent date for which data are available from U.S. Department of Transportation, 10 sexual assault incidents were reported on Norwegian cruise ships. Doral-based Carnival Cruise Line reported 28 incidents and Miami-based Royal Caribbean International reported 16 cases. The lines self-report the incidents quarterly to the FBI, in accordance with the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010.

According to those statistics, the majority of sexual assault cases on cruise ships involve other passengers, not crew, though incidents with crew members do occur. In a February 2017 suit, one woman claimed a bartender on Miami-based luxury line SeaDream Yacht Club “brutally” raped her. Another suit filed late last month alleges a woman working on a Royal Caribbean ship was raped by another crew member, The Miami New Times reported.

As far as cases with minors, Hickey said it’s “not particularly unusual.”

“We have two pending right now involving minors — let’s put it that way,” he said.

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©2018 Miami Herald

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