Across Asia’s Borders, Trafficking Survivors Dial in for Justice

When Neha Maldar testified against the traffickers who enslaved her as a sex worker in India, she spoke from the safety of her own country, Bangladesh, via videoconferencing, a technology that could revolutionize the pursuit of justice in such cases.

The men in the western city of Mumbai appeared via video link more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) west of Maldar as she sat in a government office in Jessore, a major regional hub for sex trafficking, 50 km from Bangladesh’s border with India.

“I saw the people who had trafficked me on the screen and I wasn’t scared to identify them,” Maldar, who now runs a beauty parlor from her home near Jessore, told Reuters. “I was determined to see them behind bars.”

“I told them how I was beaten for refusing to work in the brothel in the beginning and how the money I made was taken away,” she said, adding that she had lied to Indian authorities about her situation after being rescued, out of fear.

Thousands of people from Bangladesh and Nepal — mainly poor, rural women and children — are lured to India each year by traffickers who promise good jobs but sell them into prostitution or domestic servitude, anti-slavery activists say.

Activists hope the safe, convenient technology could boost convictions. A Bangladeshi sex trafficker was jailed for the first time in 2016 on the strength of a victim’s testimony to a court in Mumbai via video link from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Convictions for cross-border trafficking in the region are rare as most victims choose not to pursue cases that have traditionally required them to testify in Indian courts, which meant staying in a shelter for the duration of the trial.

“They have always wanted to go back home, to their families,” said Shiny Padiyara, a legal counsel at the Indian charity Rescue Foundation that has facilitated videoconferencing cases and runs shelters for trafficking victims. “And most never return to testify.”

But videoconferencing is making it easier to pursue justice. Survivors have given statements, identified their traffickers, and been cross examined in at least 10 other ongoing international cases in Bangladesh, advocates said.

“Enabling victims to testify via video conference will lead to a possible decrease in acquittal rates for want of prime witnesses,” said Adrian Phillips of Justice and Care, a charity that supports the use of video testimony to help secure justice.

Even then, it is tough. During Maldar’s three-hour deposition, she withstood a tough cross-examination, showed identity documents to prove her age and countered allegations by the defense lawyer that she was lying about her identity.

‘Unpardonable’

Tara Khokon Miya is preparing her 27-year-old daughter to testify against the men who trafficked her to India from Dhaka, where she had been working in a garment factory.

“I almost lost my daughter forever,” she said, sitting in her home in Magura, less than 50 km from Jessore, describing how she disappeared after work and was taken to a brothel in India, and raped and beaten for almost a year before being rescued.

“What the traffickers did to my daughter was unpardonable,” Miya said, wiping her tears. “We seek justice. I nurtured her in my womb and can’t describe what it felt like to not know about her whereabouts.”

The trial has been ongoing since 2013 when the young woman, who declined to be named, was repatriated. The charity Rights Jessore is helping the family through the process, by providing counseling and rehearsing cross-examination.

“The best thing is her father will be by her side when she talks in court,” Miya said, finally breaking into a smile.

India signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 to ensure faster trafficking investigations and prosecutions, and with Nepal in 2017, and laid down basic procedures to encourage the use of videoconferencing in court proceedings.

“The procedure is very transparent,” said judge K M Mamun Uzzaman at Jessore courthouse, which often converts its conference hall into a courtroom for videoconferencing cases to protect survivors’ privacy.

“I’m usually present and victims are able to testify confidently … it is easy and cost effective for us,” he said. “But the biggest beneficiaries are the survivors.”

The future

Videoconferencing in Bangladesh has been plagued by technical glitches such as power cuts and poor connections.

“Sometimes the internet connection is weak or it gets disconnected during the testimony,” said Binoy Krishna Mallick head of Rights Jessore, a pioneer in using this technology to encourage trafficking survivors to pursue justice. “But these are just teething troubles.”

The bigger challenge, activists say, is to ensure survivors remain committed to the trial despite delays caused by a backlog of cases and witnesses’ failure to appear to testify.

Swati Chauhan, one of the first judges to experiment with video testimony in 2010, is convinced that technology can eliminate many of these hurdles.

“Victims go through a lot of trauma, so it is natural that they don’t want to confront their trafficker in a court — but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the trafficker to be punished,” she said. “A videoconference requires meticulous planning and it is not easy coordinating between departments and countries. But it is the future for many seeking justice.”

Scan on Exit: Can Blockchain Save Moldova’s Children from Traffickers?

Laura was barely 18 when a palm reader told her she could make $180 a month working in beetroot farms in Russia — an attractive sum for a girl struggling to make a living in the town of Drochia, in Moldova’s impoverished north.

That she had no passport, the fortune teller said, was not a problem. Her future employers would help her cross the border.

“They gave me a [fake] birth certificate stating I was 14,” Laura, who declined to give her real name, told Reuters in an interview.

That was enough to get her through border controls as she traveled by bus with a smuggler posing as one of her parents.

It was the beginning of a long tale of exploitation for Laura — one of many such stories in Moldova in eastern Europe, which aims to become the first country in the world to pilot blockchain to tackle decades of widespread human trafficking.

Trafficking generates illegal profits of $150 billion a year globally, with about 40 million people estimated to be trapped as modern-day slaves — mostly women and girls — in forced labor and forced marriages, according to leading anti-slavery groups.

The digital tool behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin is increasingly being tested for social causes, from Coca-Cola creating a workers’ registry to fight forced labor to tracking supply chains, such as cobalt which is often mined by children.

Moldova has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in Europe as widespread poverty and unemployment drive many young people, mostly women, to look for work overseas, according to the United Nations migration agency (IOM).

Due to the hidden nature of trafficking and the stigma attached, it is unknown how many people in the former Soviet country have been trafficked abroad but IOM has helped some 3,400 victims — 10 percent of whom were children — since 2001.

In Russia, Laura was forced to toil long hours, beaten and never paid. After ending up in hospital, she was rescued by a doctor, only to be trafficked again a few years later when an abusive partner sold her into prostitution.

She now lives with her daughter in a rehabilitation center in the northern village of Palaria with help from the charity CCF Moldova.

“I had a lot of suffering,” the 36-year-old said. “I am very afraid of being sold again, afraid about my child.”

​Scans and bribes

Moldova plans to launch a pilot of its digital identity project this year, working with the Brooklyn-based software company ConsenSys, which won a U.N. competition in March to design an identity system to combat child trafficking.

Undocumented children are easy prey for traffickers using fake documents to transport them across borders to work in brothels or to sell their organs, experts say.

More than 40,000 Moldovan children have been left behind by parents who have migrated abroad for work, often with little supervision, according to IOM.

“A lot of children are staying just with their grandfathers or grandmas, spending [more] time in the streets,” said Lilian Levandovschi, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking police unit.

Moldova, with a population of 3.5 million, is among the poorest countries in Europe with an average monthly disposable income of 2,250 Moldovan Leu ($135), government data shows.

ConsenSys aims to create a secure, digital identity on a blockchain — or decentralized digital ledger shared by a network of computers — for Moldovan children, linking their personal identities with other family members.

Moldova has strengthened its anti-trafficking laws since Laura’s ordeal and children now need to carry a passport and be accompanied by a parent, or an adult carrying a letter of permission signed by a guardian, to exit the country.

With the blockchain system, children attempting to cross the border would be asked to scan their eyes or fingerprints.

A phone alert would notify their legal guardians, requiring at least two to approve the crossing, said Robert Greenfield who is managing the ConsenSys project.

Any attempt to take a child abroad without their guardians’ permission would be permanently recorded on the database, which would detect patterns of behavior to help catch traffickers and could be used as evidence in court.

“Nobody can bribe someone to delete that information,” said Mariana Dahan, co-founder of World Identity Network (WIN), an initiative promoting digital identities and a partner in the blockchain competition.

Corruption and official complicity in trafficking are significant problems in Moldova, according to the U.S. State Department, which last year downgraded it to Tier 2 in a watchlist of those not doing enough to fight modern day slavery.

Moldova is eager to prove that it is taking action, as a further demotion could block access to U.S. aid and loans.

​Tricked

Many details have yet to be agreed before the blockchain project starts, including funding, populations targeted, the type of biometrical data collected, and where it will be stored.

But the scheme is facing resistance from some anti-trafficking groups who say it will not help the majority of victims — children trafficked within Moldova’s borders and adults who are tricked when they travel abroad seeking work.

“As long as we don’t have job opportunities … trafficking will still remain a problem for Moldova,” said IOM’s Irina Arap.

Minors made up less than 20 percent of 249 domestic and international trafficking victims identified in 2017, said Ecaterina Berejan, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking agency.

“For Moldova, this is not a very big problem,” she said, referring to cross-border child trafficking, adding that child victims may travel with valid documents as their families are in cahoots with traffickers in some cases.

But supporters of the blockchain initiative say low official trafficking figures do not account for undetected cases, and they have a duty to attempt to stay ahead of the criminals.

“Many times, authorities are late in using latest technologies,” said Mihail Beregoi, state secretary for Moldova’s internal affairs ministry. “Usually organized crime uses them first and more successfully. … Any effort [to] secure at least one child is already worth trying.”

Venezuela Constituent Assembly Elects Cabello as Its New Leader

Venezuela’s all-powerful Constituent Assembly on Tuesday elected as its new leader Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello, who is accused by the United States of involvement in the drug trade.

President Nicolas Maduro last year led the creation of the 545-member Constituent Assembly, which the opposition and a broad group of foreign governments have described as consolidating a dictatorship by giving the ruling Socialist Party unchecked power.

“In the name of the people who have hope, I swear to do everything in my power to defend the constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” Cabello said following his election.

U.S. authorities in May accused Cabello and Maduro of profiting from illegal narcotics shipments, an accusation Maduro’s government described as a campaign of aggression.

Cabello replaces outgoing Constituent Assembly chief Delcy Rodriguez, who was named vice president by Maduro last week.

The Constituent Assembly’s deputies are all Socialist Party supporters because the opposition boycotted the 2017 election that created it.

IBM Computer Proves Formidable Against 2 Human Debaters

An argumentative computer proved formidable against two human debaters as IBM gave its first public demonstration of new artificial intelligence technology it’s been working on for more than five years.

The new skills show that computers are getting better at mastering human language and speech.

The computer made its case for government-subsidized space research by pulling in evidence from its huge internal repository of newspapers, journals and other sources. After delivering opening arguments, the computer listened to a professional human debater’s counter-argument and spent four minutes rebutting it.

The company unveiled its Project Debater in San Francisco on Monday. IBM selected possible topics based on whether they were debatable, but neither the computer nor the human debaters knew the topic in advance. Nonetheless, the computer championed the topic fiercely with just a few awkward gaps in reasoning.

“Subsidizing space exploration is like investing in really good tires,” argued the computer system, its female voice embodied in a 5-foot-tall machine shaped like a monolith with TV screens on its sides. Such research would enrich the human mind, inspire young people and be a “very sound investment,” it said, making it more important even than good roads, schools or health care.

After closing arguments, it moved on to a second debate about telemedicine.

An IBM research team based in Israel began working on the project not long after IBM’s Watson computer beat two human quizmasters on a Jeopardy challenge in 2011.

But rather than just scanning a giant trove of data in search of factoids, IBM’s latest project taps into several more complex branches of AI. Search engine algorithms used by Google and Microsoft’s Bing use similar technology to digest and summarize written content and compose new paragraphs. Voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa rely on listening comprehension to answer questions posed by people. Google recently demonstrated an eerily human-like voice assistant that can call hair salons or restaurants to make appointments.

But IBM says it’s breaking new ground by creating a system that tackles deeper human practices of rhetoric and analysis, and how they’re used to discuss big questions whose answers aren’t always clear.

“If you think of the rules of debate, they’re far more open-ended than the rules of a board game,” said Ranit Aharonov, who manages the debater project.

IBM doesn’t try to declare a winner of the debates, but Noa Ovadia, one of the human debaters, said the computer was a formidable opponent even if it made a few too many blanket statements about space exploration being the pinnacle of human achievement.

Ovadia, a national debate champion in Israel, said she was impressed by its fluency in language and ability to construct sentences. She said the computer was able to “get to the bottom line of my arguments” and respond to them.

Among several outside experts IBM invited to attend Project Debater’s debut was Chris Reed, who directs the Centre for Argument Technology at the University of Dundee in Scotland. Reed said he was impressed by its grasp of “procatalepsis” — a rhetorical technique that involves anticipating an opponent’s argument and pre-emptively rebutting it.

As expected, the machine tends to be better than humans at bringing in numbers and other detailed supporting evidence. It’s also able to latch onto the most salient and attention-getting elements of an argument, and can even deliver some self-referential jokes about being a computer.

But it lacks tact, researchers said. Sometimes the jokes don’t come out right. And Monday, some of the sources it cited — such as a German official and an Arab sheikh — didn’t seem particularly germane.

“Humans tend to be better at using more expressive language, more original language,” said Dario Gil, IBM’s vice president of AI research. “They bring in their own personal experience as a way to illustrate the point. The machine doesn’t live in the real world or have a life that it’s able to tap into.”

There are no immediate plans to turn Project Debater into a commercial product, but Gil said it could be useful in the future in helping lawyers or other human workers make informed decisions.

Mexico Calls Migrant Children Separation Practice ‘Inhumane’

Mexico’s foreign minister Luis Videgaray on Tuesday called the separation of children from immigrant parents at the U.S.-Mexico border “cruel and inhumane” and urged the United States to reconsider the practice.

Images published this week of children and youths sitting in concrete-floored cages in U.S. shelter facilities have stirred outrage. U.S. officials have defended the measures as a way to secure the border and deter illegal entry.

“This is a clear violation of human rights and puts children, including those with disabilities, in a vulnerable situation,” Videgaray told a news conference in Mexico City.

Videgaray said the Mexican government had made its position clear to U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and raised  the issue with senior U.N. officials, including U.N.Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Of some 1,995 cases registered by U.S. authorities, only around one percent of the children affected were Mexican, and most had already been repatriated, Videgaray said.

Among the 21 identified cases of Mexicans separated from their parents was a 10 year-old girl with Down Syndrome who was being held in McAllen, Texas, Videgaray said. The children are being held in shelters managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The girl’s mother was sent to another place, Videgaray said.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy in April that all immigrants apprehended while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally should be criminally prosecuted under the country’s criminal entry statute.

The policy has led to family separations because when border agents refer apprehended migrants to court for prosecution, parents are held in federal jail to await trial by a judge while the children either remain in border patrol custody or are moved into facilities.

Most of the children are from Central America, especially Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Honduras on Monday called for the United States to end the separations, and El Salvador said the policy puts children’s health at risk and could cause psychological scars. Videgaray said Mexico would be working closely with the Central American governments.

Tensions have run high between Mexico and the United States over the shared frontier ever since Trump ran for office vowing to build a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants.

US-Mexico Border, Then and Now

Immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border has changed a lot under the administration of President Donald Trump. During the last year of President Barack Obama’s term, undocumented immigrants were dealt with under a policy called catch and release. Now, it’s Zero Tolerence: Here’s how the difference plays out on the ground.

Vatican Envoy in Chile: Up to Pope to Release Sex Abuse Report

The Vatican envoy who was sent to Chile to gather evidence of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church said it would be up to Pope Francis to decide on whether to release the report of their findings to the country’s civil authorities.

During a visit in February, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s top sex abuse investigator, conducted interviews with victims to compile a 2,300-page report which he handed to the Pope. It accused Chile’s bishops of “grave negligence” in handling allegations that children had been

abused and said evidence of sex crimes had been destroyed.

Asked if the Vatican would hand over the report or make it public, Scicluna said the “freedom and autonomy” of the Catholic Church should be respected.

“The report is not mine, it belongs to Pope Francis,” he told journalists in Chile’s capital Santiago as he prepared to depart for Rome. “Every demand and petition must be sent to him who as the leader of the church … has jurisdiction.”

The Chilean authorities have said they would request details of the alleged victims and perpetrators of abuse from the Vatican, according to an interview with the national prosecuting authority’s sex crimes chief in the local La Tercera newspaper.

Scicluna announced the creation of a “listening service,” made up of laity and church officials, that would hear further allegations of abuse. He said he had met “hundreds of people” over the past week, and received letters from others.

He said the Church was committed to finding “justice” for the victims through its own channels and through civil law.

“The invitation to recognize and admit the full truth, with all of its painful repercussions and consequences, is the starting point for authentic healing,” he said. “We must have justice for the good of the country and for that of the Church.”

Scicluna’s arrival last week coincided with a growing tide of abuse allegations against the Catholic Church in Chile.

This week, further allegations arose in the southern Chilean cities of Aysen and Temuco that saw clergy suspended and sanctioned, according to statements from the Chilean Church.

Chilean police and prosecutors launched unexpected raids on Church offices last week, seizing documents relating to allegations of abuse.

Trump: ‘We’re Getting There’ in NAFTA Talks with Canada, Mexico

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday progress was being made in slow-moving talks to update the NAFTA trade accord between the United States, Canada and Mexico, but he held out the prospect of striking bilateral pacts if a three-way deal could not be reached.

“We’re trying to equalize it. It’s not easy but we’re getting there,” he told a group of U.S. small business executives. “We’ll see whether or not we can make a reasonable NAFTA deal.”

Renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump called a “disaster” for the United States, was a goal he had set out during his election campaign.

Negotiations to modernize NAFTA started last August and were initially scheduled to finish by the end of December 2017.

That deadline has been extended several times as Canada and Mexico struggle to accommodate far-reaching U.S. demands for change, such as a sunset clause that would allow one nation to pull out after five years. Canada and Mexico reject the idea.

At a news conference in Mexico City, Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray said he expected the next negotiating meeting of ministers to be held in July.

The Canadian government believes a deal to update NAFTA is still possible despite a U.S. move to impose tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday in Ottawa.

Trade frictions between the United States and Canada have been particularly strained in recent weeks, with Trump taking umbrage at remarks by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that were critical of the heavy U.S. tariffs.

Trump said on Tuesday the two nations had a good relationship, but that Americans were being taken advantage of when it came to trade.

“We have to change our ways. We can no longer be the stupid country,” Trump said. “We want to be the smart country.”

US, Amnesty International Call for Justice in Honduras

The United States’ top diplomat and a global human rights group called on the Honduran government Monday to hold members of its security forces responsible for alleged abuses after November’s elections.

 

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez the need to pursue those responsible.

Hernandez, who was re-elected to a second term in elections that opponents called fraudulent, visited Pompeo in Washington.

 

That meeting followed Amnesty International’s release of a report on the post-election protests.

Amnesty said 118 people face charges related to the protests, but no member of the security forces has been charged in any of the 32 deaths.

 

“The security forces employed excessive force to repress peaceful demonstrators, they were locked up in deplorable conditions for months and denied their right to due process and adequate defense,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director.

 

She said that by imposing harsh sentences on those arrested the government is trying to intimidate them against exercising their right to freedom of expression.

 

The wait for election results dragged on for weeks due to irregularities, but the controversy began before votes were cast when Honduras’ top court overturned a constitutional ban on re-election to allow Hernandez to run.

 

“There are no investigations into the deaths nor charges against the law enforcement officers,” the report said.

 

Nauert said Hernandez and Pompeo also discussed combating corruption and drug trafficking and discouraging illegal migration.

South American Trade Bloc Eyes New Deals as EU Talks Drag On

Leaders of South American trade bloc Mercosur pushed for trade deals with Asian and other Western Hemisphere countries during a summit on Monday, as roadblocks remained in talks with the European Union (EU) despite optimism earlier this year.

European officials said earlier this month that talks for a long-delayed trade agreement with the Mercosur bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay were nearing a close.

But Uruguay’s President Tabare Vazquez, who assumed the bloc’s rotating presidency, criticized delays in negotiations.

“We are not prepared to waste time in eternal negotiations,” Vazquez said in a speech. “Nor are we prepared to sign a watered-down version.”

Vazquez reiterated that Uruguay was keen to sign a free-trade deal with China, its top trade partner, even if it had to sign it alone rather than as part of Mercosur. China is the main market for many of the raw materials the bloc produces, but its manufacturing exports also compete with domestic industries.

The last round of EU-Mercosur talks in April ended with limited progress and finger-pointing about who was holding up a deal. Key gaps remain on how far to open each other’s markets to industrial goods and farm products, such as Latin American beef and EU cars and dairy.

The Mercosur countries emphasized in a joint statement on the need to “have the political support from both parties” to reach a deal.

“We should not abandon the idea of this alliance,” Brazilian President Michel Temer told reporters. “Closing the doors now would impede negotiations which recently have had reasonable success.”

Temer also pushed for trade talks with the neighboring Pacific Alliance countries of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, which are generally far more open to international trade than their Mercosur counterparts. A meeting between the two blocs is scheduled for next month.

In the joint statement, the bloc described recently launched trade talks with Canada and South Korea as an “assertive response against protectionist tendencies.” Argentine Vice President Gabriela Michetti also called on the bloc to “advance quickly” in talks with Singapore, India and North Africa.

In separate statements, the Mercosur members also condemned violence in Nicaragua, where a wave of anti-government protests have left 170 dead. The bloc also expressed concern about the humanitarian and migrant crisis in Venezuela, which was formerly a Mercosur member but got kicked out last year.