Violent people traffickers on trial
Two Turkish-German brothers are being tried in the Dutch city of Almelo in the largest people trafficking case ever heard in the Netherlands. By Rutger van Santen*
The case is known as the Sneep case, after the Dutch crime squad charged with investigating international women trafficking. The gang, which was active in the Netherlands as well as Germany and Belgium, forced women into prostitution and battered and raped them as well as forcing the women to have breast enlargement surgery and abortions. A verdict is expected on Friday.
The public prosecutor has accused the brothers Hassan and Saban, along with several of their cohorts, of a number of shocking crimes. Around 120 young women, most of them from Eastern Europe, were forced into prostitution after being lured to the West under false pretences. The gang took their passports and threatened and intimidated the women and their relatives back home. One prostitute was beaten with a metal baseball bat and then forced to sit in a bath full of ice-cold water to prevent bruising. The women were kept under constant observation by an ever-changing group of pimps, guards and chauffeurs.
The Dutch government appears to be implementing tougher measures against trafficking in women. According to investigative journalist Ruth Hopkins, author of a book about Hassan and Saban's gang, the Dutch authorities did little to stop the practice in the past.
"They've stepped up on the fight against trafficking, but I think for a long time it was just window-dressing. They created an anti-trafficking industry, they created a lot of organisations and a whole infrastructure around trafficking without really actually doing anything. They created a lot of bureaucracy without, in my view, really helping the women. The whole infrastructure was geared towards the interests of the state."
Hassan and Saban's gang was also working in Amsterdam. The crackdown on trafficking in women was part of a broader plan to clean up the world-famous red light district.
However, Ms Hopkins distrusts the Amsterdam council's motives:
"My impression is that they just want a clean city, they want to clean up the facade of the city and that is basically all there is to it. They present it as a measure that is to the advantage of the women involved, but in practice I don't think so, the police officers don't think so, vice-officers don't think so. Actually, only the local council really says that. Nobody believes it."
In order to effectively tackle the problem, cross-border co-operation between police forces is absolutely vital but, according to MP Fred Teeven of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), it's the weak point. Mr Teeven is justice spokesman for the conservative opposition party, but prior to entering parliament he was one of the best-known prosecutors in the Netherlands.
"It's a big handicap to prosecute. It's also the problem of gathering evidence from witnesses and from other sources in other countries. Sometimes it takes quite some time to cross over, i.e. exchange information and then there will be even more problems gathering evidence".
Another problem is that it's necessary to get the victims to testify in order to secure a conviction. Understandably, many are extremely reluctant to testify. Support groups are calling on the government to start a witness protection scheme, which would include permanent visas for those who are in the Netherlands illegally but are prepared to testify.
Former prosecutor Fred Teeven disagrees:
"I think you have to be very careful on this point. Because in the courtroom it can be a point for the defence to say that you bought a witness for this purpose."
Sceptics emphasise that the Sneep case is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Ms Hopkins, there are two people ready and waiting to take the place of every trafficker who ends up behind bars, though that should not be used as an argument to prevent prosecuting people like Hassan and Saban. But, she adds, we do have to be realistic.
"If poverty's still here, trafficking will still be here. It depends whether you're optimistic or pessimistic. But if you're realistic, poverty will probably still be here. So yeah, trafficking will still be here."
* RNW translation (jirc)
11 July 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands]