In May 2009, U.S. citizen Anthony Mark Bianchi was sentenced to 25 years in prison for traveling to Moldova and Romania for the purpose of having sex with minors.
"Sex tourists are a special breed of predatory pedophile," said Michael Levy, the U.S. prosecutor who handled the Bianchi case at the time. "They have the means to travel to foreign places where they think the law cannot reach them and where no one will care about their crimes."
Since its independence from the Soviet Union two decades ago, Moldova has been one of the places such predators visit.
With its combination of poverty and weak governance, Moldova is particularly vulnerable to this kind of exploitation. In addition to being Europe's poorest country, Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region has been de facto independent since 1992 and is a notorious haven for trafficking of all kinds.
Lawmakers in the country, alarmed by scandalous cases in recent years, many of which involved citizens of Western European countries and the United States, have voted to punish sexual assault against children under the age of 15 with compulsory "chemical castration." In addition, the law makes the treatment -- which involves the injection of drugs that reduce testosterone levels and, hence, sexual desire -- permissible on a case-by-case basis in cases of rape.
'Protect The Children'
Lawmaker Valeriu Munteanu of the Liberal Party, the author of the legislation, tells RFE/RL that he was prompted to action by a spate of repeat offenders and by Moldova's status as a leading sex-tourism destination.
"Just in the monitoring period [of a recent Interior Ministry report covering the last two years], 15 people have committed crimes, have served or are serving sentences, then again committed a similar offense," Munteaunu says. "Psychologists actually say that such crimes might be committed again 100 percent of the time because these people really are sick.
"Moreover, the same data indicates that in recent years, Moldova has unfortunately become a tourist destination, to our shame, for rapists from all European countries, who come to satisfy their carnal, animal appetites here in Moldova. We must protect the children."
In opting for chemical castration, Moldova is following a road laid out by many other countries grappling with the problem of pedophile recidivism. The Czech Republic and Poland already have mandatory chemical castration laws for certain cases. Germany, Britain, Denmark, and Sweden offer it to convicted offenders on a voluntary basis, as do some states in the United States.
Russia has already enacted a law resembling Moldova's. A similar bill was introduced in Turkey's legislature last year but has been shelved. A similar bill is currently in front of lawmakers in Armenia.
Munteanu says he studied the legislation in all of these countries while drafting Moldova's new law, which will come into force on July 1.
But many human rights advocates oppose any forced medical treatment, especially in a country like Moldova where the judicial system is widely considered corrupt and unreliable.
This means the state has legalized torture."
"The changes made to the Criminal Code say that [chemical castration] is a treatment that is compulsory for the convicted person -- mandatory without the consent of the person [being treated]," says Nichita Gurcov, a spokesman for the Chisinau office of the rights group Amnesty International. "This means the state has legalized torture."
Specialists, however, acknowledge that the procedure is effective. Psychiatrist Fred Berlin, the director of Johns Hopkins University's Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit, says that when applied to individuals who are truly diagnosed pedophiles, the treatment works.
"I think the evidence is pretty compelling," Berlin says. "First of all, we know that when we give the medication that lowers testosterone – and indeed it does that because we can do a blood test and see the testosterone is dramatically decreased – there's clear evidence that when testosterone is decreased that the intensity and frequency of sexual drive will be dramatically diminished."
Berlin cautions that many people who commit sexual crimes against children are not actually motivated by sexual attraction to children. He says treatment decisions should be based on qualified medical examinations.
Children Advertised Openly
Stopping Moldova's sex-tourism and sex-trafficking problems is a much bigger task than merely punishing pedophiles more severely. According to the International Organization for Migration, 66 Moldovan children were repatriated to the country in 2010, mostly from Ukraine and Russia. Twenty-eight of them were girls and 38 were boys. Almost all of them were from the breakaway Transdniester region.
An investigation last year
by the Chisinau-based Journalistic Investigations Center (JIC) found Moldovan children openly being "advertised" on popular social-networking sites like Odnoklassniki.ru and Mail.ru.
In November 2010, Moldovan authorities broke up a major child-prostitution ring catering to foreigners and arrested alleged ringleader Oleg Sivitki, a citizen of both Russia and Norway. The JIC investigation, however, found that the organization was thriving under new leadership a year after Sivitiki's arrest. A JIC undercover journalist was offered a night with a 15-year-old boy for 55 euros.
There are no clear statistics on the numbers of foreigners involved in Moldovan sex-crime cases because they are handled in many countries on many different criminal charges. However, in addition to the 2007 Bianchi case, British citizen Deacon David Brian was sentenced in the U.K. to 7 1/2 years in prison in 2009. In August 2011, authorities arrested two Italians in the Moldovan city of Balti. In the Sivitki case, an Italian citizen was also arrested on sex-crime charges and a former Greek parliamentarian -- Nick Georgiadis -- is being sought.
Lawmaker Munteanu realizes that the chemical castration initiative is not going to solve Moldova's sexual-exploitation problems.
"From what you hear today at the Interior Ministry or from the prosecutor-general, I am absolutely sure this is just the tip of the iceberg," Munteanu says. "Most of the offenses in this area are under the water because, unfortunately, in the villages of Moldova there is a certain patriarchal thinking. Parents do not denounce these crimes in order not to be laughed at in the village. So this phenomenon, this crime, actually exists on a much bigger scale than we know."
With reporting from RFE/RL's Moldova Service and RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher in Washington