An appeals court in Romania this week issued a verdict that upheld an acquittal for 25 men accused of trafficking dozens of Roma children across Europe while controlling their families through debt bondage.
The December 23 ruling in the nearly decade-long case, which is final and cannot be appealed, was widely seen as a test of Romania’s commitment to combating modern-day slavery.
The men were arrested in 2010 and charged with running a major child-trafficking operation, money laundering, and firearms violations.
They all pleaded not guilty.
The case focused on the southern Romanian town of Tandarei where the alleged network of ringleaders was based. From there, the accused purportedly forced more than 160 underage Roma via debt bondage to beg and steal for them across Europe, including in Britain.
A Europol investigation, which started in 2008 and involved more than 300 Romanian and British police personnel, culminated in 2010 with the arrest of scores of suspects.
Searches of 30 addresses during raids found firearms, jewelry stashes, stacks of cash, and powers of attorney authorizing members of the network to take the children out of Romania.
The suspects were members of the Romanian Roma community and 120 were convicted in Britain of child trafficking, child neglect, child exploitation, money laundering, benefit fraud, and a range of other crimes, according to reporting by the BBC.
A lower court in Romania, however, acquitted the 25 alleged ringleaders in February 2019 and again this week, both times citing insufficient evidence.
Balkan Insight reported that delays characterized the initial trial, which started in 2010, during which lawyers for the defendants were changed, and witnesses either could not be found or their testimony had changed.
Meanwhile, the statute of limitations had expired on other charges.
'Truckloads' Of Evidence
British police were exasperated at the judicial outcome in Romania.
Lead British investigator in the case, Bernie Gravett, told the BBC that he had personally seen "truckloads" of evidence being given to Romanian officials in 2010.
"We convicted 120 people in the U.K. of child trafficking…and a range of other crimes. Yet Romania have not convicted a single individual," he said.
A Romanian prosecutor told the AFP news agency that the judges had experienced a "denial of reality" and didn't justify their ruling and instead transformed the evidence into "fiction."
More than 20 rights group have condemned the ruling.
"It is a huge failure of the Romanian justice system," said Silvia Tabusca, a coordinator of the Human Security Program at the European Center for Legal Education and Research, a Bucharest-based rights group.
"We are talking on the one hand about an extremely vulnerable group that need to be protected, a very large group of Roma children," Tabusca told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). "On the other hand, this is cross-border organized crime that puts in jeopardy the entire security of Europe."