Last Monday, March 8, one of the most monumental sentences in Iceland’s history was passed in Reykjanes District Court. Five Lithuanians were found guilty of human trafficking and each sentenced to five years in prison.
In October last year, Icelandic police issued a missing person report for a young Lithuanian woman who had been arrested on board an Iceland Express flight a couple of days earlier. The woman – who was only 19 – had thrown a fit on board the plane and needed to be restrained. She was arrested on arrival in Keflavík and taken into police custody. She turned out to be heavily drugged and was confused and irrational. After questioning, she was taken to a Red Cross hostel, from which she disappeared – hence the missing person report. There were concerns that she had been abducted and might come to serious harm. It was suspected that she had been sent to Iceland to work as a prostitute.
A few days later, the woman re-appeared and couldn’t really account for where she had been. However, an investigation had already been launched, and the woman was once again taken into police custody — allegedly for her own safety.
As it continued, the investigation grew larger and more extensive in scope. All sorts of people – both Icelandic and Lithuanian – were implicated in a wide range of criminal activity, including human trafficking. Some had been involved in serious crimes in other countries, including murder. It became evident that a well-organized mafia was operating in Iceland.
The investigation finally led to those convictions two days ago. More details of the young woman’s story were also revealed. It was uglier and more shocking than anything we have previously known here in Iceland. The young woman had been imprisoned for many months in Lithuania before being sent here. She had been kept in one apartment, doped up, and sold into prostitution to as many as five men a day. At one point she had managed to escape her captors, but since she was not given adequate protection they managed to find her and abduct her again. Finally a guy showed up at the apartment who “befriended” her and whom she came to trust. He told her she would be sent to Iceland to start a new life. Her hair was cut and dyed, and she was supplied with forged travelling papers. Her new life consisted of being sent to a new set of criminals over here and forced into more sexual slavery.
That fit she had on the plane probably saved her life.
The sentences handed down to those five scumbags Lithuanians are thought to be “very severe” according to some legal experts – most notably their own defense lawyer – and will be appealed to the Supreme Court, which may well reduce them.
It was also revealed that three women testified against the five, including one who was a girlfriend – or former girlfriend – of one of them. Those women are now under police protection because they are thought to be in grave danger. This is a first in Iceland. Witnesses have never before had to be protected by police in this country.
Also a first is this conviction. There has never been a sentence handed down in human trafficking in Iceland. In fact it has only been a year since the Icelandic government set up a response plan to deal with such cases.
This case has brought into sharp focus the dark side of Icelandic society, which hitherto has remained hidden to most of us and which, evidently, is rapidly becoming more violent and horrific than before. Clearly our isolation and the small size of our nation does not exempt us from the dark underbelly of human experience. However, according to a spokeswoman for Stígamót – the Education and Counselling Centre for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, this sort of activity is not new in Iceland — it seems we’re just now moving into the 21st century when it comes to responding to it.