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Trafficking Affair Haunts Montenegrin Government

Growing international pressure may soon force the authorities to re-examine a people smuggling case implicating senior officials.
By Dragana Nikolic-Solomon

Montenegro is coming under increasing international pressure to reopen investigations into an alleged human trafficking scandal that has rocked the authorities.


Legal experts from the Council of Europe, CoE, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, have given the government until October 21 to respond to a confidential document believed to be critical of its handling of the case of a Moldovan woman who last November accused senior Montenegrin officials of being involved in human trafficking.


Pressure is also coming from the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe and the United States government, as well as an increasingly outraged public.


Despite extensive testimony from the alleged victim and detailed medical reports, criminal proceedings were shelved in May of this year due to an apparent lack of evidence.


But analysts believe that the authorities will soon claim to have "uncovered new evidence" which will allow them to reopen the case without losing face.


Last November, the young woman - who is known only as SC to protect her identity - escaped from a brothel, in which she had effectively been enslaved, and took refuge in a shelter for battered and trafficked women in the capital Podgorica.


According to a trafficking report issued last January by the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, SC was held against her will for more than three years in various locations in Podgorica and elsewhere in Montenegro, before taking refuge in the capital.


During this period, the report claims that SC was forced to perform sexual and other services for a multitude of clients and traffickers. It alleges that she was beaten, burned, drugged, raped and sexually abused to such an extent that she was confined to a wheelchair until her injuries healed.


Helga Konrad, chair of the Stability Pact's Task Force on Trafficking in Human Beings, met with SC and confirmed to IWPR that the victim was in a "horrible state - she will be traumatised for life".


The trafficking report said that over four weeks of questioning by the Montenegrin authorities, SC gave a detailed account of her experiences; that she identified various bars, flats and villas where she was allegedly forced to work, and named the traffickers and clients she claimed she had encountered - including high ranking state officials and prominent Montenegrin businessmen.


During her questioning, the report said, she was shown a series of photographs and was asked to put names to faces.


Police then arrested the deputy state prosecutor Zoran Piperovic and three other men - Irfan Kurpejovic, Ekrem Jasavic and Barjam Orahovac - on November 25 last year on suspicion of involvement in human trafficking.


The four men strongly denied the claims and were subsequently released on January 27, pending a final decision on whether charges would be pressed.


When the investigative judge Ana Vukovic was satisfied that enough evidence had been gathered to do so, the Moldovan woman was allowed to leave the country. She is now living in an undisclosed country with her two children.


But in May this year, senior state prosecutor Zoran Radonjic controversially ruled there was insufficient evidence to start legal proceedings.


After an outcry from the international community and the Montenegrin public, the deputy president of the Montenegrin government asked the OSCE to investigate the case.


According to an OSCE source, the document it presented to the authorities contains a list of clear failures in the original handling of the case and a set of practical recommendations as to what the government should do now.


"We want to give the authorities time to respond to each and every recommendation," the source told IWPR. "Only when the government responds would the report be made public."


The OSCE source said the contents of the report are being kept under wraps because the Montenegrin government is expected to cooperate more fully this way.


Two days after the report was submitted, the American consulate in Podgorica also gave its own set of recommendations as to how the authorities should tackle the trafficking problem.


The confidential proposals - later leaked to the Montenegrin media - called for the officials implicated in the scandal to be put on trial and for action against suspected corruption within the prosecution service.


Konrad told IWPR that, in her opinion, the authorities had miscalculated in thinking that the international community would forget about the scandal. "The victim gave extensive testimony to the investigative judge. In my view, there is enough evidence to reopen the case," she told IWPR.


Which is what the government might be forced do. According to legal experts in Podgorica, officials may try to save face by claiming that new evidence has been uncovered and the case should now be reassessed.


One former prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IWPR, "Due to the international pressure, there is a real possibility that someone from the government will contact the police and order them to 'uncover new evidence'. [Vesna] Medenica [the state prosecutor] will then be then obliged to reopen the case."


Prominent lawyer Marko Dakic told IWPR that the state prosecutor Vesna Medenica could also bring charges against Radonjic for abuse of power, "as he had closed the case despite the weight of existing evidence".


IWPR contacted the office of the state prosecutor for a statement on recent developments, but was told that Medenica is away on business until next week.


Dragana Nikolic-Solomon is an IWPR assistant editor in London. Boris Darmanovic is IWPR's project manager in Podgorica.


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