Government officials in sex trafficking ring arrested
Horrifying testimony of woman sex-slave traded for a Mercedes shakes political establishment of Yugoslav republic

London Independent 12/06/02: Vesna Peric Zimonjic

Original Link:
http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/story.jsp?story=358924

When police in the tiny republic of Montenegro swooped on a suspected pimp accused of running a major sex trafficking operation, they ran into an embarrassing problem.

The man they were about to put behind bars was none other than the country's deputy state prosecutor.

Montenegro has been shaken hard by the burgeoning scandal, which allegedly involved leading members of the judiciary, police and political officials. Zoran Piperovic, the republic's deputy prosecutor, was arrested this week, and six other officials have been detained. They are accused of forcing women, mostly from Moldavia, Ukraine and Romania, into prostitution.

The arrests are only a small part of the scandal, according to sources in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica. It is an open secret in the Balkans that people-trafficking rings run through Montenegro to Bosnia and Kosovo, with profits from the dirty trade reaching millions of euros.

The sex-slave routes lead to Italy and Britain, where at least 1,400 women, mainly from eastern Europe, are tricked into prostitution each year. The trade is highly lucrative for the men who "own" them; in London, women can bring in about £100,000 a year for their pimps.

But in Montenegro, the junior partner of Serbia in the Yugoslav federation, the revelations are even more shocking because of the prominence of the alleged pimps and their victims' clients.

One of the alleged clients, Mr Piperovic, 46, was known for his lavish lifestyle, luxury jeeps and homes that could not have come from his modest civil servant salary, the investigators say. Mr Piperovic and his friends were singled out in the allegations made by a 28-year-old Moldavian national, who found shelter in Podgorica's Safe House for Women two weeks ago.

The shelter is the first non-governmental organisation in Montenegro to deal with the female victims of people trafficking. Ljiljana Raicevic, the head of the shelter, recorded the woman's testimony and gave it to the police.

The woman, identified only by her initials "S C", repeated her story of sex slavery to the investigative judge, Ana Vukovic, in Podgorica two days ago. The session with the magistrate lasted for six hours, the sources say. S C described how she came to Montenegro four years ago after being promised a well-paid job. Instead, she ended up deprived of her passport and becoming a sex slave. She was sold several times by the "bosses" who owned her and on one occasion was traded for a Mercedes car.

As a sex slave, she entertained prominent members of the judiciary, police and political officials. In perfect Serbian, which she learned over the years, the Moldavian woman gave the names of the 20 most frequent "customers".

She alleged that besides Mr Piperovic and his friends, these included the State Prosecutor of Montenegro, Bozidar Vukcevic. Mr Vukcevic denies the allegations, as well as the rumours that he was willing to talk about the affair in exchange for not being arrested.

S C gave details of houses, cafés and nightclubs where she "turned tricks" and, with colleagues, was beaten and sexually abused. She tried to run away several times and even to commit suicide, but eventually fled the hospital and ended up in the shelter.

Among her clients were police officials who were in charge of deporting foreign nationals caught in prostitution, but also some of the lawyers of the recently arrested officials.

"S C is a highly intelligent and educated person, a former athlete," Ms Raicevic said. "We had to go public after hearing her story, which is similar to so many others." So far, 48 women have found shelter in the safe house.

"We practically dared the government, the police and the judiciary to say what they know about what had been heard through the grapevine for years," Ms Raicevic said.

Analysts say that human trafficking has replaced the once profitable practice of cigarette smuggling in Montenegro. Organised crime was forced to turn to other business in the changed political climate in the area after the fall of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic two years ago, which led to laws and regulations legalising the tobacco trade.

'Our battle against this evil must be effective'

By Vesna Peric Zimonjic

The safe House for Women in Podgorica is based in an ordinary and modest two-floor family building. But there are precious few warm family stories to be heard here.

Any warmth and comfort comes from Ljiljana Raicevic and a group of volunteers who run the only shelter for human trafficking and sex-slavery victims in Montenegro. "I'm doing this because many women have become victims of human trafficking and sex slavery," Ms Raicevic said. "I hope the battle against this evil can be effective."

Ms Raicevic, 55, who has three children and two grandchildren, had the idea of helping women while working at the healthcare centre in the Montenegrin capital. "At first, it was violence against women in general that attracted my attention," Ms Raicevic says. "Then, one thing led to another."

Montenegro, the sister republic of Serbia in the rump Yugoslav Federation, is home to a community that cherishes conservative values. Women are largely regarded as second-rate citizens and family violence is an unspoken shame.

Ms Raicevic originally started a shelter for battered women but with the increase in human-trafficking operations created the "safe house". The Safe House for Women was registered as a non-profit organisation in 1999. It has so far housed 48 women who were tricked into prostitution.