KOLKATA, INDIA, March 05, 2015
One of the most brutal brothel owners we have ever encountered in our work in India is facing ten years in prison for sex trafficking crimes in two cases. It’s the first time a trafficker has been convicted twice for these crimes in the state of West Bengal.
For IJM staff, this long journey toward began in 2009. For survivors like Prema*, the journey was even longer.
How Prema Was Trafficked
Prema’s story begins like many of the survivors IJM has worked with over the years. She was born into a poor family and eventually had to drop out of grade school. Her father was an alcoholic, and she moved to Kolkata so her mother could work as a domestic servant.
When Prema was 14 years old, she was drugged sold to a brothel by a young man she had grown to trust as a friend.
"I was alone and scared and didn’t know where I was,” Prema says, recounting her first thought upon waking up in the brothel. The next six days were spent locked in a pitch-black room. Prema’s first customer beat her before raping her. She was his prisoner for 36 hours.
This nightmare became Prema’s reality for the next year. Day after day, the brothel owners beat her and customers raped her. "I would beg customers to free me,” Prema says. Sometimes she would hide under beds and tables. "I tried to escape but was caught.”
"The other girls with me felt that we wouldn’t see the light again and we would be confined in the darkness forever,” Prema remembered years later.
The Moment of Hope
One of the men who ran the brothel where Prema was trapped is a man named Nakul Bera. Bera was already on the run when IJM learned about Prema’s story. IJM had helped state police rescue four other girls from one of Bera’s brothels in February 2009. Bera had escaped, but his brothels were still open for business.
One of the brothel managers arranged a private party at a nearby beach resort. Prema and four other girls were selected. Along the way, their car was pulled over as the vehicle crossed a bridge. The party had been a ruse, and police and IJM intervened to rescue the girls.
Police arrested the driver and issued arrest warrants for Bera and his co-owner. The search for the criminals intensified.
A New Journey Begins
Prema moved into a loving aftercare home run by a partner NGO. IJM social workers started meeting regularly with Prema, helping her develop a treatment plan to process her trauma and make a new path forward.
Both Prema’s social worker and the aftercare home staff watched as she began to heal from her abuse. "The staff there have witnessed Prema’s inner strength, fortitude and joy that helped her to survive the horrors she experienced in a brothel,” says her IJM social worker.
Seeking Justice In Court
IJM’s team helped police track down and arrest Nakul Bera in November 2009. It took three more months until the other owner was finally in custody. Finally, the trial could start.
Both of the brothel owners were well-connected and wealthy. Their lawyers used delay tactics and regularly filed for bail. Each application meant another hearing—which meant several hours of travel time for the IJM team who would show up to oppose the application.
Prema’s resolve to see justice done for her was unshakeable. She was 18 when she was called to testify. She stood before the court and spoke boldly. "I was forced to do sexual work against my will,” she said, pointing to the brothel owner and managers who had abused her.
After testifying Prema said: "I want the owners and managers to be punished brutally.”
Just one month later, the judge who heard Prema’s testimony was transferred. A new judge had to review all of the evidence. It was a huge blow in the case that was so near to closing arguments and a judgment. Over the next 11 months, the final hearing to announce the verdict was delayed 11 times.
A myriad of reasons blocked the trial from moving forward: The judge needed more time to review the evidence; the police weren’t able to transport the accused to the courthouse; the judge’s father-in-law died.
"Each time it was hard to convince myself to go again, but faith kept me going,” said Saptarshi Biswas, IJM’s attorney in charge of the case. "I had to have faith in God for His timing.”
Then on February 13, 2015, Biswas traveled from Kolkata to the courthouse for the twelfth time. This time, all parties were present. Nakul Bera, the other owner, and two brothel managers were convicted under the Indian penal code and India’s anti-trafficking act. Three days later, the judge announced the final verdict: the owners were sentenced to ten years in prison; the managers to seven. In addition, the judge ordered each perpetrator to pay about $1,700, which will be divided among the five survivors.
A New Day
"These cases prove that the West Bengal government is fighting for women’s rights. The police were proactive in investigating the crime, and the special public prosecutor fought insurmountable odds to support this case,” says Biju Mathew, IJM Kolkata Director. "Because of this conviction, there are four less traffickers today. As a result, many other young women are safe from violent abuse.”
An IJM social worker called Prema to tell her the news. After spending several years in the aftercare home, Prema has moved home. She is now married and raising a toddler son.
When she heard that Bera and the other men had been convicted, Prema said, "God has been so faithful to me.”
"Each conviction gives us hope,” Biswas reflected. "Victims are not forgotten in the public justice system.”
Prema’s journey of healing still continues as she faces challenges and worries shared by many young mothers in impoverished villages around the world. But as her social worker says, "She knows what to do and whom to ask for help. She’s found her own solution. She is empowered.”
"I am so grateful to the people who rescued me,” Prema told her social worker, "I want to thank every one of them. I have been given a chance to stand on my own feet and start a new life from here."