Romanian brothers sent to prison in landmark Northern Ireland sex trafficking case
Two Romanian brothers have been jailed for sex slavery in a landmark case for Northern Ireland.
Decebal Mihai (28), of Kenlis Street, Banbridge, Co Down, was handed a four year sentence while his younger brother Spartacus Ilie Mihai (21), of Henly Road, Ilford, in Essex, received three years at Belfast Crown Court.
The PSNI said it was one of the biggest investigations into human trafficking in Northern Ireland, and the first conviction here under the new Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act (NI) 2015.
It is also the first human trafficking conviction in Northern Ireland where the victims did not have to provide any evidence.
After a tip-off from a member of the public, police searched properties in east Belfast and Banbridge in May last year.
At both addresses, officers discovered women aged between 19 and 30 who were identified as potential victims of sexual exploitation.
All four agreed to voluntarily go with detectives to be spoken to, but did not co-operate with police.
Detective Chief Inspector Mark Bell said after yesterday's sentencing that this was because "they were absolutely terrified".
"This was a particularly distressing case," Mr Bell said.
"The victims were all reluctant to speak or say they had been trafficked but displayed many of the tell-tale signs such as visible unexplained bruises on their bodies, not knowing their address and not being able to speak much English.
"One of the victims admitted she was a prostitute but was too afraid to give evidence against the brothers.
"During the course of the investigation, we discovered that one of the victims, who was only 19 at the time, had been arrested for stealing condoms from a shop in Banbridge."
He added: "Despite the women being reluctant to give evidence, we were able to disrupt their heinous activities and put them behind bars where they belong without their victims having to endure court proceedings."
The brothers were part of a Romanian crime gang operating a UK-wide human trafficking network in Northern Ireland and had earned a "significant six figure sum'' from the illegal sex trade. The pair had pleaded guilty to a number of human trafficking offences including controlling prostitution for gain, conspiracy to traffic for sexual exploitation, acquiring criminal property and converting criminal property.
The court heard that up to six women were involved in selling their services on websites, including Escort Ireland, and earned in excess of £100,000. Prosecution lawyer Rosemary Walsh said the women were advertising their sexual services as "£100 for half an hour and £150 for a full hour''.
The brothers were arrested last May after a covert police surveillance operation. Undercover police officers would ring numbers advertised on the websites offering sexual services and arranged to meet up with the women, sometimes at hotels.
When the women turned up at the meeting point, police identified Decebal Mihai as the driver whose job was to "taxi'' the women to their clients.
The Mihai brothers will spend half their sentences in prison and the remainder on supervised licence after release.
Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland told the brothers that, following the completion of their sentences, "in all likelihood you will be deported'' back to Romania.
They were also made the subject of Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Orders.