Three women arrested in a major cross-border offensive against prostitution walked free from court after pleading guilty to running a brothel in Belfast.
The trio, all Polish nationals, each received suspended two-month prison sentences for the offence and another charge of possessing criminal property.
Sandra Polewska, Milena Tarnowska — both aged 23 — and Marta Kozakowska (27) were detained during raids across Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Kozakowska admitted a third offence of obstructing police by swallowing a mobile phone SIM card when police entered their apartment on Tuesday.
Belfast Magistrates Court heard they were the only ones involved in an unsophisticated brothel based at Alfred Street in the city.
Prosecutors said officers seized large amounts of cash, sexual items, condoms and six mobile phones from the property. Polewska claimed to be a student who had visited Northern Ireland six or seven times to work as a prostitute, advertising her services on an escort website.
Tarnowska told police she arrived for “fun and socialising” during a two-week stay before returning to get married in Poland.
The court heard she claimed to have danced and provided massages for men who called at the apartment, but denied offering any sexual services.
Some of the clients occasionally gave her gifts, she said.
She also confirmed her pictures were also on a website.
Kozakowska had dismantled one of the phones and removed the SIM card once police broke in.
District Judge Fiona Bagnall was told she then swallowed it in an attempt to protect her clients and herself.
Kozakowska, who had been in Northern Ireland since last November, also admitted providing sexual services. She was said to have taken calls and bookings at the apartment because she spoke better English than the other two.
“It would be accepted by the prosecution that this was a very simple, unsophisticated set-up involving these three ladies,” her lawyer added.
All three accused wanted to return to their native country and had no plans to return to Northern Ireland, the court heard.
It was stressed that human trafficking did not feature in the case.
Judge Bagnall accepted there was no allegations of exploitation and gave the women credit for pleading guilty to brothel-keeping and having criminal property.
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Last summer it emerged that up to £500,000 was being spent every week on prostitution in Northern Ireland. Police estimate there are 88 brothels in operation, with the region having a higher demand for prostitution than most other areas of Europe. The brothels are usually run by local gangs, including paramilitaries, but there are also foreign groups.