Family freed of charges in Swedish trafficking case

A couple charged with trafficking in persons in Gothenburg, Sweden, was recently freed of all charges. The husband of the family had travelled to Serbia, visiting acquaintances, and brought with him back to Sweden a 14-year-old girl from a poor family, to marry his adult son. The girl supposedly agreed to this and her father has received smaller amounts of money since. Once in Sweden, the girl realised that her husband-to-be is mentally deficient and ill. The girl has not had access to her passport, has not been able to speak Swedish, has been largely isolated in an apartment and has not attended school, factors which have severely increased her vulnerability.

Although marriage for persons under 18 is only allowed under certain circumstances and with a specific permit, neither child marriage, nor forced marriage has yet been criminalized in Sweden. The person who arranges a child marriage may become guilty of trafficking in persons, in cases where all pre-requisites have been fulfilled, i.e. all elements are present:

a) The recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt of persons…

b) by means of threat, or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person…

c) for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of body parts.

(from the UNTOC convention and its protocol on Trafficking in Persons)

The Swedish legislation on trafficking in persons adds to the third element that this exploitation should “…take place in a situation of distress for the victim*.” An example of this used in background studies to the present legislation is: a young person, subjected to sexual exploitation and forced domestic labour within a forced marriage.

The court in this case agrees that the potential victim was recruited to act as girlfriend or wife. The information given about the husband-to-be was directly misleading, as the parents hid the fact that he was mentally deficient and ill. Hence, the court agrees that there are elements of recruitment, as well as elements of deception or fraud in this case. I would personally add to this, an element of abuse of a position of vulnerability, given the economic situation of the girl’s family. The fact that her dad was regularly paid for the girl’s services, further adds to the second element of trafficking. Not to mention the fact that the girl was underaged, which makes element b) above irrelevant.

When it comes to the element of exploitation, the prosecutor has focused on the girl being sexually exploited while under the age of 15 (the legal age for sexual relations in Sweden). The mental state and personal characteristics of her “husband” were similarly raised, as contributing factors to a distressful situation. The court nevertheless did not see the evidence of his behaviour and mental deficiency as sufficient to describe the situation of the girl as distressful. It was similarly not clear to the court whether this marriage was arranged for the purpose of sexual exploitation. In addition, the girl changed her testimony along the way, and was not found to be trustworthy. Hence, the element of exploitation could not be proven, and the family was freed of all charges (including trafficking in persons, assault and rape) Two members of the court disagreed, arguing that the couple should be sentenced to two years of prison for trafficking in persons.

This is one example of a case contributing to the current statistics in the EU, where the number of TiP cases in courts has increased, while the number of sentences has decreased. Trafficking in persons is a complex crime where evidence is hard to come by. In the end, the prosecutor needs to provide evidence of the perpetrator’s intention to exploit the victim, a victim who is usually extremely isolated (making it hard to find other witnesses), and often extremely nervous and cautious about the consequences of his or her testimony. In improving legislation as well as legal procedure, it is vital that our understanding of the crime, as well as the situation of the victim is improved.

It is a mystery to me, how a 14-year-old child can be sold and married to a stranger suffering from mental illness, in a foreign country, where she does not speak the language and does not attend school, nor gets to take care of her own passport, could possibly be anything other than distressed.

* A situation of distress/a distressful situation is my translation of the Swedish term: Nödsituation.

Stella Rössborn för RealStars