Promising practices: One of the highest human trafficking verdicts in Serbia was issued during the COVID-19 pandemic

Promising practices: One of the highest human trafficking verdicts in Serbia was issued during the COVID-19 pandemic


Judicial professionals, like all other citizens, were affected by the coronavirus crisis in their daily work. Many of them could not do their regular jobs in the same way as before the pandemic, and trials were not even held at some stages. On the other hand, there were priorities which, regardless of the declared state of emergency and movement restrictions, could not be neglected. Detention cases took place despite the pandemic, as have trafficking cases, that is, trials in which victims of human trafficking had to appear as injured parties/witnesses. Courtroom confrontations are known to jeopardize the recovery of trafficking victims, mostly due to re-experiencing the trauma, especially when it comes to children. In one such detention case, in which a minor girl was a victim of trafficking, the investigation was completed in two months, while the trial had a total of three hearings. It all resulted in a prison sentence of 20 years - one of the highest convictions for human trafficking in Serbia. We spoke with the Deputy Higher Public Prosecutor in Pančevo, Olivera Sekulić Šošdean, who worked on this case, after the second-instance decision of the Court of Appeals in Belgrade, about the manner and conditions in which the case was conducted, and how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the entire process. The aim of this conversation was to present to the public everything learned from these proceedings in order to try to apply it in further work.

Prosecutor Sekulić Šošdean stated that, on the very day when she was on call, in the midst of the pandemic and the state of emergency, she received this, perhaps the largest and most important trafficking case in her career, and that she believes the way it ended represents success and a good example of joint work. For Atina, this verdict is also of utmost importance, as the girl was recognized at an early stage as a victim of human trafficking, and introduced to the protection system.

By a verdict of the High Court in Pančevo of October 30, 2020, the defendant was convicted to 20 years in prison for committing the criminal offense of sexual intercourse through abuse of position, under Article 181, paragraph 2 of the Criminal Code, and the criminal offense of human trafficking under Article 388, paragraph 3 of the Criminal Code. Upon the appeal of the defense counsel, the Court of Appeals in Belgrade has, after the panel session on March 9, 2021, rejected this appeal as unfounded and confirmed the first instance verdict. The decision of the Court of Appeals, in the part concerning the criminal sanction, cites that the first instance court correctly concluded there were no mitigating circumstances on defendant’s side, while the assessed aggravating circumstance were his previous convictions, persistence in committing criminal acts, ruthlessness and heartlessness in committing the offense, as well as a lack of remorse on his part. The Court of Appeals further stated that the first instance court acted correctly when it convicted the defendant to a single prison term of 20 years, finding that this sentence was proportionate to the seriousness of the committed crimes, social danger of the crimes, and the defendant's guilt and circumstances under which the acts were committed, which make this sentence essential to achieve the purpose of punishment.

Victims are persons, not evidence

Every crisis carries an increased risk of exploitation. When a crisis occurs, all the resources of a society are directed to its overcoming, and in this case of the COVID-19 pandemic, health response was, clearly, the predominant one. In circumstances of a crisis, the control exercised by institutions inevitably weakens, as all resources are focused on resolving the burning issue, while on the other hand a space opens for criminal groups and individuals to act. People lose their jobs in crisis situations, they are burdened by existential pressure, and more easily fall into traps when it comes to labor exploitation, but other forms of exploitation as well. Due to the measures of movement restriction that are widely present, the possibility of making a profit is reduced, and the risk for victims further increased.

The risks she was exposed to, but also life circumstances of this girl, victim of human trafficking in the case led by Sekulić Šošdean, made a strong impression on the prosecutor. She was thinking for a long time about this girl who was sexually abused by her father, who later sexually exploited her and distributed recordings of sexual intercourse with his daughter on Facebook. “The girl previously escaped from the Home she was accommodated in. As she had nowhere to go, she went back to the father pedophile, without even being aware that he was exploiting her. He changed the girl's view of things; he changed her notion of normalcy. Children are endangered by the nature of things, they are not able to resist adults in many things even in regular conditions,” concludes the prosecutor.

During the proceedings, preventive measures had to be respected, and they also affected the establishment of a relationship of trust, which is already shaken when it comes to victims of human trafficking. “When the victim came to give a statement, she wore a mask, and I simply like to see the face of a person who comes to me as a victim. As part of that general relationship of trust that must be established, I asked the girl to take off her mask for a moment, so that I could see her face, because that impression that she does not look more physically mature is quite important. You talk to her like you would to your own child, and you have to do it that way in every situation, to establish a relationship of trust, especially when you know or have at least read what that child has been through.” If the support and protection of the victims is lacking at the beginning, when ugly things start happening to them, they need it even more later, and their recovery is much more difficult. “When, at some point, you understand what is happening, and when you try to help the child, that journey is much longer and harder than it would have been in some other circumstances, if, say, the exploitation was immediately discovered, if the girl had not spent that much time with her father, and he had not been indoctrinating her for so long.”

Psychological consequences for this girl are devastating. “You just can't help but see the extent to which her psyche has changed. Her father told her it was normal, and it became normal to her, she even believes that she was looking for love that way. It is really terrifying how easily one can usurp a young mind that is highly suggestive, as psychologists explained in the proceedings. She was a child without any support. I really hope that after all this, she will be able to find her own way, and that she will manage to recover. She is now 18 years old, and there is still some time ahead of her during which that recovery can be influenced.”

Honest cooperation as the key factor

“Human trafficking is not a crime that happens here every day; there were similar cases, but we mainly had trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, without any minors involved. Maybe the state of emergency, and the circumstances of the case, dictated that we end it so promptly, because that child had to be removed from the family that was a threat for her,” she said. According to prosecutor Sekulić Šošdean, when such a case is completed so quickly, it is quite satisfying. “When you finish such a case quickly, an investigation in three months, and trial in three hearings, when the defendant receives a sentence of 20 years, which is the maximum sentence under our law, when he is in custody from the first day, which is then extended until he is sent to serve the sentence, when you take care of the victim, when you see that other actors who did not participate in the proceedings are helping that girl, then I believe we did the best we could. I am happy that I was able to learn so much from this case, and it simply instilled hope that the system does work. While this conviction cannot fix much in the context of what the victim has survived, it can prevent that convict from repeating the offense in the future, and therefore provide some satisfaction to the victim. When we talk about the prosecutors’ contribution, and what prosecutors can do except prosecute, they can connect all these factors (Center for Social Work, Center for the Protection of Trafficking Victims, Atina and others) that participate in the proceedings and provide support to the victim, presents their work and reports to the court, and it then leads to such a verdict”.

"For me, I must say, it was extremely educational and useful that Atina organized a meeting where I was introduced to their work and the way in which victim support system functions. Through that, I understood what an umbrella organization is, what non-governmental organizations do, the role of the center for social work in this process, although it was already somewhat clear to me, as we had cooperated with them. I believe that the meeting, and even my interest, gave Atina some security, the fact they saw me, that they could ask. But that is the task of a prosecutor when conducting the process, to get to know the victim and to provide her full statement as early as during the investigation. When you see a victim who is convincing in what she is saying, you have a sure path toward your goal, to take it to the end of the process, to gather other evidence, and we have done that together. It was easy for me when we entered the process upon Atina’s report, as they had already provided the recording they obtained, and I had persons I could call during the investigation to ask for support, access, guardian… We had a minor from the migrant population who was a witness in the proceeding, it was necessary to ensure that his guardian also came, all during the state of emergency. However, where there is a good will, people find ways, and when the will is lacking, you seek excuses. We found a way!”

Public judgment is the worst

The case of this girl is not the first case that was exposed in public which was made aware of all the details. It seems that, because of the pandemic and the fact that everyone spent more time at home, they also had an opportunity to learn even more information. Although it was not in the public interest, nor was it necessary for the public to know, the identity of the girl was revealed in the media along with the details of everything that happened to her. Prosecutor Sekulić Šošdean points out that the interest of the public may be natural, people express their opinions in the media and on social networks, but it has been determined countless times that these details have little to do with what is really happening. “The information prosecutor has in the case are available only to them and the defense counsel; regardless of the fact that people are trying to obtain information, they cannot get it before it is actually collected in a valid way. Especially in the procedure where the public is excluded from the trial due to protection of the interests of the minor/injured party. That is the difference between the public perception and what really exists in the case. In other words, it is very dangerous to make a judgment in advance.”

When it comes to the role and actions of the media in such cases, as we have seen, it can be extremely harmful and dangerous for the victim. No matter how hard the prosecutors try to protect the rights of the victim, if those rights are publicly violated and the whole of Serbia finds out who the victim is, the fact that the court proceedings were conducted without the presence of the public has no real weight. In this regard, “we should work more on education, explain what the ethics of going public means, and always ask ourselves if it can harm someone, if someone's interest will be harmed,” Sekulić Šošdean said.

Bearing in mind the question of how to further protect the rights of victims and injured parties/witnesses within the judiciary, the prosecutor points out those undertaken obligations must be consistently applied always and everywhere. In this regard, the Criminal Code prescribes protection of particularly sensitive witnesses, however that is only one part as protection is provided in many other ways, through safe houses, work with NGOs, cooperation with centers for social work. These forms of protection and support are equally important as a form of prevention, so that violence or exploitation do not occur. When the criminal proceedings take place, the crime has already happened and the victim is there, her rights have already been violated. However, it is important to ensure that her rights are not further violated during the proceedings. The prosecutor emphasizes the importance of victim protection measures during the proceedings. “If there are professionals who know how to ensure protection of the victim within the allowed space, if they have an affinity as individuals and a minimum of compassion, they can reconcile professional and human aspects easily. I believe that judges are increasingly recognizing the need to support victims in order to prevent secondary victimization. So these are minor changes already in place, but I think that if you love what you do, and this cannot be done by someone who is not a philanthropist, then you will do everything in your power to support the victim, and make sure she does not suffer any longer.”

Interview with the Deputy Higher Public Prosecutor in Pančevo, Olivera Sekulić Šošdean, was led by Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković, MSW, and coordinator of Atina’s direct support program for victims of human trafficking, in May 2021.




This article was produced within the project “Support to civil society organisations’ initiatives to assist and protect victims of trafficking in human beings during the COVID-19 pandemic” NGO Atina is carrying out with the financial assistance of the Council of Europe. The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the Council of Europe.