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U.K.: Ukrainian Gets Seven Years In Jail For Exploiting East European Labor

A modern-day Ukrainian "slave trader" last week received a seven-year jail sentence in Britain for exploiting Eastern European immigrants for cheap labor. The man, Viktor Solomka, ran a criminal gang that supplied factories in Scotland and elsewhere with workers from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, and Lithuania. Solomka kept his workers in crowded, substandard accommodations and stripped them of all but a tiny portion of their wages. It took Solomka -- himself a recent immigrant -- just three years to build up an enterprise with 700 workers and earnings of nearly $10 million.

London, 15 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Solomka's guilty verdict Friday (Feb 11) followed a year-long investigation both in Scotland, where the 44-year-old Ukrainian native had operated, and in England's eastern Norfolk region, where he had lived in considerable luxury.

Peter Tidey is the head prosecutor for Norfolk County.

"Clearly, the scale of the operation was considerable. We are talking about something to the order of 700 different employees -- some illegal immigrants, some who would overstay using false documentation. So you can imagine the difficulties in trying to identify individuals, and to locate the factories in which they worked, and then to coordinate and arrest a number of people back in March 2004," Tidey said.

Most of the police action took place in Scotland's northeastern Grampian region near the coastal city of Aberdeen, where Solomka's laborers were employed mainly in fish-processing plants. Some 38 workers were eventually arrested in Aberdeen, most of whom were later deported.

Ian Japp, the chief inspector of the Grampian police, who led the investigations, said last week's conviction was the result of careful planning and long-distance collaboration between Grampian and Norfolk.

"The two areas are over 400 miles apart, but we were able to work in close cooperation, because what we set out to do right from the start of this inquiry was to try and get the person at the top of the tree -- in this case Solomka -- and perhaps taking in some of his what we would call 'lieutenants,' as well. I am very delighted that we were able to get the result that we achieved," Japp said.

Japp says Solomka will likely face eventual deportation in addition to jail time and the confiscation of his assets. Police have already frozen Solomka's bank accounts and seized his house and a fleet of expensive cars. A hunt for hidden assets is also underway.

Solomka -- who himself arrived in Britain only five years ago, with no money or prospects -- went to extreme lengths to present his laborers as legal workers, often falsifying passports, immigration documents, and expired work permits.

Japp says police discovered a cache of false passports and immigration stamps among Solomka's property. The investigation has shown that nearly 500 of Solomka's 700 workers were in Britain illegally.

Japp says the laborers often worked up to 16 hours a day, and were forced by Solomka to hand over a large portion of their wages for accommodation, transportation, and help with their documents. Some workers are reported to have made less than $4 an hour, and were sometimes subjected to beatings and intimidation.
"Clearly, the scale of the operation was considerable. We are talking about something to the order of 700 different employees -- some illegal immigrants, some who would overstay using false documentation."

"The people whom he was coercing to work for him were victims themselves. Perhaps it was that he had a hold over them, and he was able to exploit them. They were looking for someone to try and help them, and Viktor Solomka was able to then try and extract more money from them," Japp said.

Members of Solomka's labor gang have already faced or are soon to face trial, including several Britons and a Latvian, Andris Cerins, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Tidey described one suspect, a native Russian, as Solomka's right hand.

"There is an Alexander Pianzin, a Russian individual, who basically was the man who was working with Solomka, assisting with running the operation based in Scotland. And then there were two other local men, who were assisting with the money laundering offenses by setting up and running companies locally. The money was put into these companies, and then of course distributed to Solomka," Tidey said.

Tidey said the Solomka case should serve as a warning to other criminal groups looking to enter the illegal labor market.

"What we would say is that I think we’ve shown here that both ourselves and the police are determined to show criminals, particularly the organizers, that crime does not pay. And we will make every effort to stop their extravagant lifestyles, which basically -- as in this case -- has been funded at the expense of a number of other victims,” Tidey said.

Once all of the Solomka gang is behind bars, Tidey adds, human traffickers and slave-labor rings are likely to find Britain "much less attractive."