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Park Paula

Rights Court Raises Sex-Trafficking Oversight


: Wall Street Journal ( )


The European Court of Human Rights ruled for the first time since it was created in 1998 that sex trafficking is a violation of antislavery conventions, in the case of a 20-year-old Russian woman who died two weeks after she came to Cyprus to work in a cabaret where she was sexually exploited.


Although trafficking is already illegal in many of the European countries the court covers, the ruling spells out the duties of those states in trafficking cases -- by saying that civil authorities from the victim's country of origin as well as the transit and the destination where the sexual exploitation occurs are obliged to investigate the crime and enforce laws against it. The court ruled that both Russia and Cyprus had failed to adequately investigate the sex-trafficking of Oxana Rantseva and that Cyprus violated her right to life by holding her in custody without charge, placing her in the custody of her traffickers and failing to investigate her death in 2001.

"When the police have a credible suspicion of someone being trafficked, at that stage they have to make investigations in order to protect the unsuspecting victims," said Andrea Coomber, legal director of Interights, a U.K. charity that submitted arguments for the plaintiff in the case.

The court has ruled previously in labor-trafficking cases. But it has never ruled on a sex-trafficking case because victims, often under constant threat of violence, have little access to the justice system in any country, Ms. Coomber said. Yet the crime is illegal in most of the 47 countries that have signed the European Convention on Human Rights, which lays out democratic rights across the Continent. The European Court of Human Rights enforces the convention -- and provides a legal forum for people whose rights are violated by the state but who fail to get redress in that state.

While the ruling doesn't change existing laws it declares that victims have a right to expect vigorous enforcement of the laws and they can seek sanctions and penalties from governments who fail to implement antitrafficking laws.

The case was brought by the woman's father, Nikolay Rantsev, who campaigned in both countries for an investigation of her death.

The court found that Cyprus had violated the girl's right to life and right to protection under the law and ordered the government to pay 40,000 ($57,600) in damages. Russia was found to have violated the European conventions against slavery and ordered to pay 2,000. Mr. Rantsev was also awarded 3,150 for costs.

Both countries have been criticized by law-enforcement authorities -- Russia as being a major place of origin for trafficking and Cyprus as a destination. Ludmila Mikhailovna Churkina, the lawyer representing Mr. Rantsev, lauded the ruling for prohibiting "Cyprus businessmen and cabaret owners to use Russian Ukrainian and other young women from being included in trafficking sex exploitation."

Michael Katsounotos, a spokesman for the Cypriot police, defended its record. "This criticism is exaggerated because we make our efforts ... for the whole country,' he said.

Oxana Rantseva, entered Cyprus with an "artiste" visa March 5, 2001, and on March 28 around 6:30 a.m. was found dead below the fifth-story apartment she had been staying in. The police found a bedspread loosely tied to the balcony. Mr. Rantsev demanded an investigation and the Russian ambassador repeated his request several times before Cypriot authorities actually staged an inquest in December 2001.

On March 28 the cabaret owner, Marios Athanasiou, found Ms. Rantseva in a discotheque and took her to the police saying she was in the country illegally. "I wanted Oxana to leave so that I could bring another girl to work in the cabaret," he said at the inquest, according to ECHR documents.

Around 4 a.m. the police released the woman into Mr. Athanasiou's custody. He took Ms. Rantseva to the apartment; and he said he slept in the living room. A corroborating witness, the wife of the apartment owner, confirmed some of Mr. Athanasiou's statements but gave two separate and conflicting descriptions of the events. Unsatisfied, Mr. Rantsev sought redress with the Russian authorities and then with the ECHR.

"Although the facts had occurred in 2001 there had not yet been a clear explanation as to what had happened," the ruling said.

Corrections & Amplifications:

Ludmila Mikhailovna Churkina was the lawyer representing Nikolay Rantsev. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Ms. Churkina represented Russia.

Write to Paula Park at paul.park@dowjones.com

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