When protectors turn perpetrators
13.02.14 @ 09:27
BRUSSELS - Family men, business men and other respectable citizens, all pulling over to enquire about the price of oral sex, intercourse or a hand job.
Elements that appear shocking to the average reader soon becomes part of the everyday cycle of abuse for women being sexually exploited.
Nigerian former trafficking victim Victoria told her story in this series’ first installment.
When asked if, when she see ordinary men, she thinks to herself that this person could be using women like herself, she is unhesitating in her response.
"Yes. Even in Sweden, when I was on the street … The policemen go there, and they sleep with the girls. Sometimes they don’t want to pay, and if you ask them for money, they will show their badge, saying that prostitution is a crime in Sweden and that they can arrest you.
(Authors’ note: selling sex is actually not illegal in Sweden; it’s the sex buyers who are committing a crime.)
It’s a sad and historic truth that the words of ”women of ill-repute” weigh lightly against the words of men with power. Therefore, it is strong evidence in favour of Victoria’s allegations of police corruption that one of the most senior figures in the anti-trafficking sphere now confirms:
"The girls [in Sweden] say it independently of each other. We can also tell that they are telling the truth by their fearful reactions when we say that we should press charges against the policemen. But we have stopped trying to press charges. The girls are all too afraid."
We confront Swedish police’s National Anti-Trafficking Co-ordinator Kajsa Wahlberg with the claims.
"I’ve come across this in international contexts so it needn’t be unfounded. There are, for example, reports that highlight the issue. But I still believe it’s very alien to most Swedish police officers," says Wahlberg.
But Swedish police have abused their powers before. In 2010, a policeman posted at border control in Gothenburg demanded sex from a trafficking victim. In exchange, he would let the woman stay in the country for one or two years. The policeman was exposed by the interpreter, who filed charges.
The same year saw the Stieg Larsson-esque scandal of Swedish police chief and gender expert Göran Lindberg, who turned out to be a sexual sadist and serial rapist of minors.
Around the world, stories of policemen buying or abusing prostitutes abound.
Just last autumn, a policeman in Ottawa found the private mobile number of a colleague during a trafficking investigation, and in Memphis, a police officer has been charged with sex trafficking while on duty. In 2010, five French police officers were sentenced to prison for forcing a Romanian prostitute to have sex with all of them over several months. Two Palermo police officers were arrested in 2011 for extorting prostitutes. One was indicted in January 2012, the other pleaded guilty a week later.
The list of unlawful actions by corrupt officials - such as trading inside information on planned raids for free sex - goes on.
Transparency International states that corruption is a key reason for why human trafficking continues and traffickers remain free. Policemen, judges and government ministers play crucial roles. Yet little has been published on the topic.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recounts several anonymised cases in a 2011 paper. Trafficking victims from one brothel testified that police were regular visitors, but instead of inspecting the women’s situation, they’d have coffee with the owner. During the investigation into another brothel, an undercover agent discovered that business was booming – under the protection of two retired police officers.
Those who come across police corruption seem afraid to talk, or make a big deal out of it.
”During the course of the research, testimony was collected in relation to the policemen who habitually have sexual intercourse with the victims,” writes the author of the report Trafficking of Nigerian girls to Italy (University of Turin, 2003) in passing.
Even fewer are brave enough to fight it.
But Sister Rita at the Casa Rut shelter in Italy whom we met in this series’ third installment has reported two police officers for stealing money from a prostitute, and dragged another to court for raping ”one of the girls.”
The latter case was a success: the policeman was stripped of his badge.
In her autobiography, The Girls from Benin City, writer Isoke Aikpitanyi recounts a story of two carabinieri buying sex and then returning – six of them – to beat up the women. Nothing came of the charges later filed. Isoke was herself trafficked from Nigeria to Turin.
We meet her and her husband Claudio, instrumental in her rescue, in the chaos of Rome’s Termini central station. Having interviewed dozens of women, she immediately confirms that policemen are clients of, and even rape or beat, trafficking victims:
"But the girls won’t press charges, out of fear. And if they do, their file is just archived away," Isoke explains, motioning something being swept under a carpet.
"This presents a real problem to the girls when they try to leave the street or seek help in other ways. 'Oh look, it’s that girl who filed charges against a policeman', they’ll say at the police station."
In other words, the incentive for exploited women to reveal such abuse is very low.
Corrupt police officers may be an individual rather than a structural problem (although female European officers speak of a deep-rooted macho culture).
But there is a ripple effect to their actions.
The circle where prostitutes can seek help tightens when they see friends bought by policemen, leaving only social workers to create potentially lifesaving bonds with the women.
In a worrying trend that NGOs are raising the alarm about, exploited women are moved from the streets into apartments and houses, out of reach of social workers. If they can’t trust the police, the only ones who could theoretically barge in, they are left to perish.
Despite experts agreeing that demand is the key factor driving human trafficking, focus is rarely on the buyers. Social worker Johan Christiansson at KAST (Buyers of Sexual Favours) in Stockholm says that these men, as opposed to the prostitutes, practically never exist on the margins of Society.
"Some of the men caught risk ending up in the press because they belong to a profession that I wouldn’t just deem a 'top profession', but one which directly contradicts their Actions."
People in positions of trust within politics, both left and right. Within the church. And so on.
Victoria doesn’t seem surprised that policemen, too, were among the many men willing to take advantage of her. It’s the fact that they abuse their powers to threaten and demand free sex that upsets her.
"Some of these Swedish policemen are investigating drug trafficking, others are on the vice squad. When they come [to the red-light district], of course they want sex."
This article was first published in Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden) and Spiegel Online (Germany) in Jan/Feb 2014 and is part of series of investigations into human trafficking.The series was made possible by a working grant from journalismfund.eu