A girl answered the phone from the newspaper ad “Vesele devojke” (“Merry girls”) and, after a short conversation, gave the person on the other side of the line the address of the flat in one of streets of Novi Sad. Several hours later, a man came to the flat in which there were two girls, one just of full age, while the other still a minor.
Before entering the room in which the underage girl was to furnish him with sexual services, the young man left his sweatshirt in which he was keeping his money by the door. On the way home, he realized that a part of the money was gone.
Somewhat more than four years later, in March 2016, the adult girl Ivana Todorov was sentenced to five years and three months of imprisonment for human trafficking and theft. By its verdict, the court also took into consideration the property claim of the young man who had suffered theft and decided that Todorov should compensate him at the amount of 550 EUR.
By the same verdict, the underage girl who was forced to prostitution, while beaten and starved for months by Todorov, her brother and boyfriend, was instructed to initiate litigation to get damages.
This verdict is an example of years-long court practice in Serbia that victims of human trafficking – which in a large number of cases relates to girls forced to prostitution – are directed to a totally new trial if they want to be compensated for damages, even though law makes it possible for property disputes to be resolved within criminal proceedings.
In the case of sexual exploitation, there are numerous stereotypes and victims get condemned, so for them this is yet another proof that they are not guilty, that they were damaged
Ivana Radović, organization ASTRA
The research of the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) indicates that from 2012 to the end of 2016 at least 107 persons were convicted for human trafficking, trafficking of minors for adoption, and intermediary services in prostitution. As some courts refused to file all data, CINS managed to identify 52 individuals against whom these verdicts were passed. Out of these, a new court proceeding for damage compensation, arising from forcing a person to prostitution, was launched in just one case.
Biljana Sinanović, judge of the Supreme Court of Cassation, says that the aim of criminal proceedings is to decide on guilt, while deciding on property claims calls for impact of litigation in criminal proceedings.
“In my opinion, practice should be modified in these terms so as to alleviate the position of the victim”, adds Sinanović.
Ivana Radović from NGO ASTRA, which, among others, is active in protection of victims of human trafficking and exploitation, says for CINS that damage compensation is important because, for victims, it means not only financial support but also justice – it shows that the state protects them.
“Especially in the case of sexual exploitation, there are numerous stereotypes and victims get condemned, so for them this is yet another proof that they are not guilty, that they were damaged”, says Radović.
Double trauma for victims
The underage girl from the beginning of this story came to Novi Sad looking for a job, in order to help her parents and family. A friend introduced her to Ivana Todorov, her brother Branko, and her boyfriend Velimir Brletić. Once they entered Ivana’s flat, they told the girl she was to work as a prostitute. She refused and tried to leave the flat, but she was prevented by Brletić, who threatened her with a baseball bat.
Soon, she had her first customer. She slept on the floor, was not allowed to leave the flat by herself, or communicate with her family without surveillance, and when she refused customers, she would be beaten and left without food for days.
“She is still in fear, because she is not sure if all individuals who took part in these developments were arrested, so when she goes out to the street she is frightened all the time and keeps turning around…“, reads the verdict by which Brletić and the Todorovs are found guilty.
Still, the verdict encompassed three of them, even though more people were involved according to statements of this and other girls who were forced to prostitution.
Serbia without a fund for victim compensation
In 2014, organization ASTRA published a publication in which a working group comprising judges, prosecutors, policemen, lawyers, and experts analyzed the position of victims of human trafficking and other criminal offences featuring elements of violence, and proposed modifications of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Judge Biljana Sinanović, one of the members of this working group, said for CINS that judges need to be provided with adequate evidence and in such way encouraged to deliberate property claims within criminal proceedings.
“Our proposal to judges was, if court experts are determining whether trauma arose, that they should request the expert to state the amount of consequential damage incurred by the trauma”, explains Sinanović.
The working group also proposed establishment of the Fund for compensation of victims of criminal offences with elements of violence.
Ministry of justice stated for CINS that due to the lack of money Serbia has still not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on compensation for victims of violent criminal offences, even though it has signed it. Once this happens, amendments of the Code of Criminal Procedure will follow.
In the course of the proceedings, the lawyer of the maltreated girl stated the claim for compensation of damages, but the court instructed her to initiate litigation. As it is given in the verdict: “In these criminal proceedings, the court does not dispose of data, that is evidence, which would provide reliable grounds for either full or partial decision in relation to the claim for compensation of damages, as Snežana Popov, court expert, could not state her position as to the amount of the compensation claim filed by the attorney”.
Till the beginning of 2017, no compensation was claimed against the three convicted persons.
In other verdicts for such cases which CINS examined, courts did not justify their decisions to refer damage claims to litigation proceedings, or did not treat this issue at all.
Analyses conducted by ASTRA indicate that criminal courts almost always refer the victims to new, litigation proceedings.
According to the statement of Ivana Radović from this organization, out of all identified victims – whose number she estimates at several hundred since human trafficking became a criminal act in 2003 – only one managed to collect compensation for the damage she was incurred.
In the verdicts CINS had the opportunity to examine, the girls involved who were victims of human trafficking and prostitution, are mostly described as uneducated and with poor material status. In their justifications, judges frequently emphasize that the circumstances these girls were subjected to were very traumatic, resulting in consequences in terms of life full of fear and uncertainty for them.
Nevertheless, courts still decide to refer them to new trials, where they would have to face human traffickers again, be interrogated and subjected to expert evaluation that is subjected to secondary victimization and repeated trauma.
Ivana Radović states that in the course of criminal proceedings victims may get the status of especially sensitive witnesses which, in theory, implies certain rights and level of protection in the course of the trial. However, when the victim goes to the litigation department and files a lawsuit – she and the trafficker become equal parties in the proceedings.
The second issue lies in the fact that initiation of new proceedings for damage compensation also implies new costs for victims who have to wait to win the litigation to be compensated, which may last for several years.
The Higher Court in Novi Sad stated that property claims are tackled in criminal proceedings only when there are reliable grounds for that, for instance, when the amount of damage resulting from theft is determined. If data from criminal proceedings do not offer reliable grounds to pass a decision on the property claim, and additional checks would stall the criminal proceedings, the court refers the party to litigation.
Other courts CINS contacted did not reply when asked about this topic.
Slobodan Josimović, deputy public prosecutor in the Higher prosecutor’s office in Novi Sad says that prosecutors collect evidence of importance for damage compensation to the extent it is relevant for the criminal proceedings; otherwise, the victim has a more important role in the collection of evidence. However, victims mostly do not state any compensation claims in the course of criminal proceedings, which is why courts refer them to litigation.
He adds that it is not realistic to expect that after criminal proceedings the victim will have enough strength, courage, and funds to initiate other court proceedings which may last for years, thus, criminal proceedings should be the first and the last step on the way to achieving the right to damage compensation.
Only one proceeding initiated
In the last six months, CINS was analyzing data on guilty verdicts passed by basic and higher courts in Serbia over the last five years, for criminal offences of human trafficking, trafficking in minors for adoption, and intermediary services in prostitution. Some courts did not respond to requests for access to information, while the others passed data through verdicts, or just as a number of verdicts and defendants found guilty.
Higher courts passed the total of 70 guilty verdicts for human trafficking, and three verdicts for trafficking in minors for adoption. Basic courts do not prosecute these criminal offences. For intermediation in prostitution, higher courts passed 21, while basic courts passed 29 guilty verdicts.
Based on the submitted data, CINS journalists established that the verdicts encompassed at least 107 persons, out of whom 51 were identified, who were not sued for damage compensation. Due to incomplete replies from courts, it was not possible to determine whether such lawsuits were filed against the remaining persons.
Harmonization with EU standards
The EU Progress Report on Serbia’s progress towards membership in the European Union for 2016 reads that “the damage compensation system in litigation proceedings does not function”. It also reads that it is necessary to allocate adequate funds for assistance to victims of human trafficking, and that is necessary to “encourage a more proactive approach of investigative authorities so as to avoid relying on statements of victims for the purpose of launching investigation“.
Similar text was published in the latest State Department report which analyzes human trafficking in all countries of the world.
In 2012, the European Parliament and Council passed a directive which is to prescribe minimum standards in term of rights, support, and protection of victims of criminal acts; Serbia will have to harmonize its regulations with it in future. The directive contains an article which reads that member states need to ensure “that victims in the course of court proceedings have the right to be provided with decisions on compensation for damages by the perpetrators within a reasonable period of time”.
The damage compensation lawsuit was initiated in only one case, against Dejan Stojanović from Niš, who was threatening an underage to engage in prostitution for two months in the beginning of 2006. Nine years later, Stojanović admitted to this criminal offence and was convicted to one year of house arrest and fine of 300,000 dinars.
Following this, a lawsuit was instituted against Stojanović to claim damage compensation for suffered fear, physical and psychological pain, as well as damage to reputation and honour; the proceedings are still pending. The trial launched for compensation of material and consequential damage was initiated in February this year.
Together with prison sentences, every fifth convict was also pronounced a fine, while confiscation of property originating from the criminal offence of human trafficking was at the level of incident – four times in the last five years.
Fines ranged from 10,000 to 300,000 dinars, while the confiscated illegal proceeds amounted to 1.45 million dinars and 8,300 EUR. CINS collected this data only on the basis of supplied verdicts, as the Ministry of Justice has been refusing to supply data on property confiscated for these criminal offences for months.
The fact that victims of human trafficking rarely decide to claim damage compensation is corroborated by the data from Ivana Radović from ASTRA, according to which victims initiated only three proceedings of the kind in the last five years.
Radović says that in such cases “there is no balance”, because victims of severe criminal offences are expected to corroborate the proceedings by taking the stand in court, with a punishment threatened should they not appear: “Then you take the illegally obtained proceeds and you do not give this to the victim, there is no compensation fund for the victims, so you just take: somewhat from the victim through testifying, somewhat from the traffickers.“
The research was conducted with participation of Bojana Bosanac.
The story was produced within the project “Supervision of public policies: prEUgovor covers reforms in Chapter 23 and Chapter 24” supported by the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.