RIGA - A Riga regional court sentenced Swedish citizen Martin Strandberg to eight years in prison on Oct. 25 for trafficking women and confiscated his property. His wife Dace, a Latvian, was also convicted with a suspended three-year sentence and two years of probation.
"The decision is unlawful and can be canceled," Strandberg's lawyer Raimonds Liepins said.
He claimed that his clients never sent a woman to work abroad who didn't know what the work at the other end entailed. Since, according to Liepins, the women willingly left the country for Sweden to work as prostitutes, the defense feels this could ultimately lead to a conviction reversal.
"The people [judges] who made the judgment were not qualified enough to give the correct decision," Liepins said.
Strandberg's wife, who reportedly knew of the trafficking scheme, also tried to persuade Latvian women to move to Sweden.
Prostitution in Sweden is illegal - although only for the buyer. The Nordic country has so far run a number of campaigns against human trafficking in the Baltic states and has even funded information booklets for police on how to deal with those who have been objects of trafficking.
Prostitution in Latvia, on the other hand, is officially legal but only in "red-light districts" where prostitutes are ostensibly required to carry health cards and undergo regular medical examinations.
Ilmars Mezs, head of the local International Migration Organization, a United Nations body that combats human trafficking, disagreed with the defense's arguments.
"It doesn't matter if they did so freely - most trafficking is done willingly - this does not change the fact that the person is a trafficker. If someone buys drugs it is also illegal, even if its been done willingly," he said.
It is difficult to know the exact number of women transported from Latvia per year, but Mezs puts the number in the hundreds.
Still, some moves against the widespread problem have been made. The local branch of the IOM helped 15 women last year, and five so far this year re-enter society by offering financial assistance for medical and living expenses.
It is widely believed that many prostitutes in Western Europe come from poorer countries to the east. With Latvia being the poorest country in the EU, it is therefore not surprising that some women are trafficked to other parts of the union.
Mezs described the women's working conditions in foreign countries, where little is provided in the way of money or legal rights, as hellish. He also pointed out Latvia's poor history in prosecuting individuals guilty of trafficking women out of the Baltic state.
Strandberg has 10 days to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. Born in 1975, the Swede was detained in early February at the Riga passenger port.