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Of human trafficking in the Land of the Nice

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.

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  • sylvia hikins March 10, 2010, 1:34 pm

    ‘Reduced sentence’? There is no sentence too long or too severe for bastards like these. And what about the men who pay for the ‘services’, who must know something about the circumstances of the women they use and abuse? Should they be exempt from prosecution? Sex trafficing is now a global problem. It’s a pity that we couldn’t put some of the financial resources we so speedily found to prop up the banks, into tackling this – not just in the police and criminal justice system to hunt down the gangs who are in control , but by providing protection and safe refuge for the victims and thus enable more women to escape to safety, care and support.
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Eliza March 10, 2010, 2:06 pm

    five years only, that’s indeed Nice.
    Time to grow up from the age of innocence ?

  • lala March 10, 2010, 2:37 pm

    I thought 5 years was a mild sentence. But I’m from the U.S.

  • Michael Lewis March 10, 2010, 3:08 pm

    Arguably if you legalised prostitution (as they’ve done to a degree in NZ) you destroy the market for illegal activity. Much the same way that cheap goods from China (DVD players for 20GBP) made it ‘uneconomic’ for many career thieves in the UK (rewards: who wants to pay for a used DVD player when a new one is 20 GBP, didn’t justify the risk: being fined or sent to prison). The ultimate deterrent though is hanging.

  • Bromley86 March 10, 2010, 5:15 pm

    I’ve been looking at Google translated Icelandic news articles for a while. Having seen what seemed to be really light sentencing in Iceland for sex crimes, I was going to say that this is likely an extension of that. However, I see that we’re no better in the UK on this issue (8 years reduced to 4 and they’re not deporting the scumbag):
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/hampshire/7050785.stm

    Michael
    Arguably if you legalised prostitution (as they’ve done to a degree in NZ) you destroy the market for illegal activity.

    But would that change the demand for a certain type of woman? Or increase the local supply?

    Although the trafficking of Lithuanians probably wasn’t a big deal in NZ because of the 24+ hour travel time, I’d imagine that there might have been an issue with Asians even with the relative isolation of NZ.

    The Herald brings up a different possible result of decriminalisation:
    “Police and advocates for change believe it is likely the trade exists here and has become harder to detect since the liberalisation of prostitution laws in 2003.
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10565125

    BTW, I’ve seen you mention NZ a couple of times now. Is it a possible bolt-hole for you? Don’t tell me you got your money over there at 2.80 🙂 .

  • JimJones March 10, 2010, 5:19 pm

    5 years? Really? I’ve heard of people going to prison that long for being caught with cannabis in some places in the US. But then, maybe prison in Iceland is really, really, really rough.

  • Tom Thumb March 10, 2010, 7:29 pm

    Don’t you think it is time for Iceland to return the compliment to the U.S. by offering to pay the U.S. to house and feed these prisoners since it is well known that the U.S. has 20% unemployment and has the highest incarceration rates in the entire world. Hey, they could use the money especially since the U.S. refuses to be truthful about how much the banks lost on phony mortgage backed securities. After all, if the U.S. could suggest that Iceland house Guantanamo inmates who have never even been tried in a court and convicted, pfffft!, why can’t Iceland send these honestly convicted criminals to the U.S.? Okay. Back to reality. What were you talking about?

  • Michael Lewis March 10, 2010, 9:02 pm

    “I’d imagine that there might have been an issue with Asians even with the relative isolation of NZ.”

    Yes, quite a bit of Asian migration ,to Auckland at least. Less so than Aussie. According to the TVNZ at least, there are unlicensed sex workers. But I get the impression its bundled up into illegal immigration and not the people-trafficking we see from East to West Europe. So perhaps it still occurs.

    As an industry prostitution has existed since biblical times, I think the Kiwi approach is sensible – legalise it, make it safe for the workers and tax it.

    Though from a moral (or at least Christian) view, you are legalising paid rape.

    ” I’ve seen you mention NZ a couple of times now. Is it a possible bolt-hole for you?”
    “Don’t tell me you got your money over there at 2.80”
    Yes, wife is a Kiwi, I was married over there and my son was born in Starship hospital over there (No way my wife wanted to have our baby here in the UK). So its where we will build a house and retire (hopefully).
    Sadly 2.80 NZD to the pound is a distant memory. I missed the boat, unforgivable really, though I did I buy CHF and AUD, Aussie earning 0% in a deposit account has made about 30-40% in Sterling terms.
    Sterling may not be as bad as the Krona – but you have to have insurance.

    JimJones writes..
    “prison in Iceland is really, really, really rough.”
    I remember a TV programme in the UK that talked about prison systems in scandinavian countries. Not sure if that included Iceland (I think it was probably Sweden). The up-shot was – a holiday camp.
    They even had conjugal visits!!!
    Perhaps some Icelanders can inform us …

  • idunn March 10, 2010, 9:30 pm

    It is often said, with more than a little truth, that secrets are hard to keep in a small town. Everybody knows everybody else’s business, like it or not.

    So how exactly does something such as this go on for very long in such a small nation as Iceland without it becoming common knowledge?

  • Max March 10, 2010, 10:38 pm

    @JimJones: Just watch Fangavaktin! Prison in Iceland is luxurious. For some of those there, it would be better than the homes they lived in outside jail. Mind you, it’s not much different here in the UK, with inmates receiving Sky TV direct to their cells and suchlike.

  • alda March 10, 2010, 10:56 pm

    Perhaps some Icelanders can inform us … — I think by most standards it is, indeed, pretty luxurious. And yes, they allow conjugal visits here, too.

    So how exactly does something such as this go on for very long in such a small nation as Iceland without it becoming common knowledge? — The prostitution cases that have made headlines lately both involved foreigners. I think there is a fair bit of segregation when it comes to immigration here. There’s a woman in prison now charged with pimping — she’s from New Guinea and had been operating this racket here for a couple of years without it being discovered. Allegedly she kept at least one woman imprisoned, having taken away her passport and clothing and threatening to kill her if she tried to escape.

    I think there is raised awareness of this now, though, so hopefully things will start to change.

  • sylvia hikins March 10, 2010, 11:29 pm

    Max- ‘it’s not much different here in the UK’. Spoken, I suspect, from someone who has never been to a UK prison. I visited Wakefield prison last year (not as an inmate I hasten to add) and went round two of the Victorian wings and they were both hideously overcrowded and pretty grim. The inmates shared tiny cells without decent sanitation and because of the lack of space it is not unusual for them to be locked up for hours on end. In UK mens prisons, 73% of those convicted are there on drug related problems. Not exactly the environment for any rehabilitation to take place.
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Max March 11, 2010, 12:28 pm

    @Sylvia: It was of course a tongue-in-cheek remark. Never being imprisoned myself, I would not have first hand experience about the conditions of a UK correctional facility. I think a general perception is that prisoners are given too many “luxuries” whilst they are inside, whether that is the case or not is completely unknown to me.