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Macedonia: Small Victory in Battle Against Traffickers

Much trumpeted conviction of human traffickers belies problems in getting successful prosecutions.

Macedonia's battle against people-smuggling was boosted last week with the sentencing of five convicted traffickers to long prison terms, but the country still has much to do if it is to bring more offenders to justice, observers say.

A Skopje court sentenced four Macedonians and an ethnic Albanian to a total of 33 years in prison under laws classifying trafficking as a crime, which were introduced in 2002. The verdict came after the court heard harrowing written testimony from the victims, who were not present for the trial. Their statements to investigators, which have been seen by IWPR, show how they were beaten and forced to have sex in brothels across the country.

Zan Jovanovski, a Macedonian police liaison officer with the Bucharest-based Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, SECI, tasked with getting countries in the region to do more to combat trans-border crime, commended the authorities' handling of the case, describing it as "an encouraging sign".

Vladimir Danailov, senior legal assistant at the International Organisation for Migration in Skopje, said the conviction will have a very "big preventive impact" on traffickers as they will now realise that they face long prison sentences if they are caught.

Other similar cases are in the pipeline and the authorities are doing more to combat human trafficking in general: in a first for the region, victims who've returned to their country of origin after escaping their captors or freed by police are encouraged and helped to come back to Macedonia to testify; they are also offered compensation for their suffering, which, it is hoped, will make them more inclined to come forward; and there are plans to try people who are indirectly associated with trafficking gangs.

The country, then, is clearly making progress in the battle against people-smuggling - and doing much more than its neighbours in this regard - but, nothwithstanding last week's conviction, it's finding it difficult to bring offenders to justice. Since trafficking was a made a crime, there have been five convictions, with those found guilty receiving short or suspended sentences. Many more have been charged but not successfully prosecuted.

The lack of effective protection for witnesses, legislative inconsistencies and limited legal expertise in trafficking cases are thought to have been major stumbling blocks in securing convictions.

The IOM in cooperation with the authorities has opened a centre for victims where they are made to feel secure and offered counselling, but more such facilities are required otherwise they simply return to their country of origin and are reluctant to return to testify when their former captors are put on trial.

And the fact that under Macedonian law convictions for people-smuggling are based largely on witness testimony, with little or no regard for other material and circumstantial evidence, means that unless victims are prepared to come forward cases simply collapse.

Samoil Filipovski, a lawyer specialising in trafficking cases, says there's also a problem with judicial interpretation of the law, " [Trafficking is] a new charge and we do not have any prior court practise in using the legislation."

Critics of the authorities' handling of such cases have insisted that recent convictions only came about because the prosecution got lucky, with witnesses fleeing their captors and providing highly detailed evidence, despite inadequate provisions for their safety.

Referring to last week's trial, one western diplomat said, "This a step forward but it's mainly due to some very courageous women who testified even though they had no legal protection. If it wasn't for these women, these men would be free."

Significantly, diplomatic sources have told IWPR lack of witness testimony is believed to have undermined the authorities attempt to try a leading suspected gang leader Dilaver "Leku" Bojku, currently facing six charges of procuring girls in the south of the country, for trafficking.

"Leku is charged for prostitution when everybody knows he is involved in trafficking but nobody dares to step forward as there is no witness protection," said one diplomat.

Danailov acknowledges that more should be done to safeguard victims; that the law should be changed so that trafficking convictions are not based just on the testimony of victims; and that judges and prosecutors are better trained to deal with such cases.

The IOM official pointed out that efforts are underway to address all the aforementioned problems. The situation, he said, "is not ideal, but getting better and better".

Nonetheless, he said the US State Department rates Macedonia as one of the countries doing most to tackle people-smuggling and points out that its efforts to date have actually forced the traffickers to change the way they operate: previously, girls were held in bars and clubs, but increasingly their captors are moving them into rented accommodation making it harder for the police to find them.

He says the authorities' attitude towards the problem has changed hugely, as it wasn't long ago that the victims of trafficking were considered little more than illegal migrants and expelled from the country.

Yigal Chazan is IWPR managing editor, Dragana Nikolic-Solomon is an IWPR assistant editor and David Quin is an IWPR investigations editor. Saso Dimovski, a journalist with Skopje Sitel TV, also contributed to this report.

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