Sunday, June 24, 2012

Finland: 16-year-old girl trafficked and forced into prostitution

Human trafficking and modern-day slavery are daily realities in many countries. Around the world, people are trafficked and forced to endure indignities and untold human rights violations far away from their home countries. Some cases such as what has been dubbed the "Nigerian connection" and West African girls enslaved in New Jersey attract wide media coverage, while others like the case of a 16-year-old girl trafficked from Romania and forced into prostitution in Finland do not get enough coverage.

Last week, Helsinki's District Court found a man guilty in a case in which a 16-year-old Romanian girl was tricked to Finland and forced into prostitution. The perpetrator, identified as Tudor Stamatie, was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison for human trafficking. 

The 16-year-old was pressured to work as a prostitute in Aleksis Kivin Katu, a street in Helsinki, Finland. She could not stop work and return to her home country. She worked as a prostitute on the street everyday (except for one day when her stomach was aching) for a period of two months. She met 5-6 clients a day in a car.

The minor could not talk to the police because her "master" threatened her with violence. He sometimes hit her. The 16-year-old girl and her friend received only 10 euros a day for food. The perpetrator sent a large part of the money made from the illicit business to his family in Romania while the victim's family was sent only a small fraction.

The court ordered the perpetrator to pay the victim 29,000 euros in compensation. The court judgement allows the girl to return home and be reunited with her family.

I welcome the decision of the District Court. Human trafficking is inhumane and degrading. It has disturbing similarities to slavery and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Traffickers and patronizers of the abhorrent business should bear the full weight of the law. 

Before the far-right in Finland and elsewhere high jack this case and try to use it against immigration and immigrants from Romania and elsewhere, it is worth highlighting that the society as a whole and all men who buy sex contribute to a lesser or greater extent to forced prostitution. The fact that a 16-year-old girl could be forced into prostitution in Finland means there is a market for forced prostitution in the Nordic country. There is no supply without demand. 

All those who benefit from forced prostitution - both clients and traffickers, Finns and foreigners - share responsibility for human trafficking and should be punished accordingly. The 16-year-old girl reportedly met with two hundred men during the period when she was forced to work as a prostitute. All the men she met with exploited a minor and should be ashamed of themselves. 

Tudor Stamatie, the trafficker in this case, has been imprisoned. This is good news. But other predators who benefited from his crime are still on the streets and perhaps continue to exploit minor girls and vulnerable women.

In November 2011, police uncovered a case of human trafficking and organized prostitution in Lahti, a small town about 100km north-east of Helsinki. It is plausible to conclude that there are more victims of forced prostitution and human trafficking out there waiting to be rescued. People of good conscience and the authorities should be vigilant. Human trafficking, forced prostitution and  modern-day slavery could be happening in plain sight.

Finland is a transit and destination country for trafficking victims. The majority of victims come from Russia, the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe. Estonians are among the most common nationalities in the Finnish sex trade. Adult men in Helsinki have been caught paying for sex with teenagers with gifts and alcohol. [Source].

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Finland's convicted Members of Parliament

Rarely do convicts occupy seats in parliament. On 19 June 2012, Pakistan's Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from office and from parliament after convicting him of contempt of court on 26 April 2012. As a lawmaking organ, parliament is expected to be occupied by law abiding citizens, but this is not the case in Finland. The Nordic country's parliament is currently occupied by two controversial Members of Parliament (MPs) - James Hirvisaari and Jussi Halla-aho - who have been convicted by Finnish courts on charges of inciting hate against an ethnic minority group. One of them even ridiculed a ruling of the country's Supreme Court.

James Hirvisaari
In many countries, MPs are lawmakers. They represent the "will of the people" and enact laws. The unicameral Parliament of Finland is the "supreme organ of the state." Finland's new Constitution in the year 2000 strengthened the position of parliament as the main organ of the state. The fact that the Prime Minister of Finland is elected by Parliament illustrates its central role in Finland's political system. MPs therefore play a central role in the country, hence they should be held to higher standards.

Finland's 200 MPs are elected every four years and they enact legislation, approve state budget, ratify international treaties and oversee the Government of the Republic. The last parliamentary election in Finland was in April 2011. It was during the 2011 election that James Hirvisaari and Jussi Hala-aho were elected to parliament.

 The duo share a lot in common.

 Both are MPs for the populist Perussuomalaiset party and are linked to Suomen Sisu, a nationalist Finnish organization that kicks against Islam, immigration and multiculturalism. Both are bloggers, both attack immigration, Islam and multiculturalism in their writings. More importantly, both MPs were convicted in relation to hate speech and inciting hatred against an ethnic group in relation to writing published online.

Hirvisaari was convicted in December 2010 and in June 2012, the Supreme Court denied him leave to appeal.

Jussi Halla-aho
Jussi Halla-aho on his part was first convicted in September 2009. He appealed the decision of the District Court, but the Supreme Court upheld the verdict in June 2012. Hala-aho dismissed the ruling of the Supreme Court as "the personal interpretation of a few people." Besides breaking Finland's law on liabilities in public communications, the lawmaker ridiculed the country's highest court. This is a slap in the face of the judiciary.

The fact that both politicians were voted into parliament after they were found guilty by courts is an indication that some voters and the Perussuomalaiset political party are not worried about being represented in parliament by convicted politicians who make no secret of their hateful and derogatory views about ethnic and religious minorities. This sends a wrong message that lawmakers could be lawbreakers.

Persons convicted of incitement of hatred against ethnic minorities should not be credited with seats in parliament and tasked with enacting laws.

All is not bleak. Electing convicts to represent the public and enact legislation is unreasonable and somewhat laughable, but it is also an indication that democracy is alive.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Fatou Bensouda: Sworn in as Chief Prosecutor of the ICC

Article 42 (3) of the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC), states that the Prosecutor (and Deputy Prosecutors) of the ICC shall, among other things, be "persons of high moral character, be highly competent in and have extensive experience in the prosecution or trial of criminal cases." A woman from Gambia, Fatou Bensouda, meets this criteria and has been sworn in as the new chief prosecutor of the ICC in The Hague. She has gone down in history as the second person, first woman and first African to hold the post.

Fatou Bensouda, a former Justice Minister of The Gambia, now heads the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC.

As head of the Office of the Prosecutor, she is responsible for the daunting task laid down in Article 42 of the Rome Statute. Her office is responsible for receiving referrals and information on crimes within the jurisdiction of the court, examining them and conducting investigations and prosecutions before the court.

Fatou Bensouda officially became the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC on 15 June 2012 after she was sworn in at a ceremony in The Hague. She was reportedly elected by consensus on 12 December 2011.

Her predecessor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, served as Chief Prosecutor from from 16 June 2003 to 15 June 2012. During his term in office, he opened investigations into seven situations - all in Africa: Sudan (Darfur), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Central African Republic, Kenya, Libya and Ivory Coast.

Fatou Bensouda was Moreno-Ocampo's Deputy Prosecutor.

The ICC has been criticized for disproportionately targeting Africans. Hopefully Fatou Bensouda, a daughter of Africa, would take the court in a new direction and silence critics of international justice. She should have the courage to conduct investigations in Africa and beyond. Only in this way would she help restore the credibility of the ICC in the eyes of many Africans who are suspicious of the court and condemn it for "selective justice" and double standards.

The African Union (AU) reportedly endorsed Fatou Bensouda's candidature and "lobbied intensely" for her to be selected. She should thank the AU for the support, but what she should not do is turn a blind eye to crimes committed in Africa. She should keep the pressure on African perpetrators and look elsewhere at the same time for crimes under the jurisdiction of the court. Well-documented international crimes committed by George W. Bush and his cohorts is a good place to start. Calls by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, for George W. Bush to be brought to justice, have not been heeded - even after he attempted to justify torture. The failure to investigate George W. Bush and other western public figures like Donald Rumfeld, Dick Cheney, just to name a few for their roles in international crimes puts the credibility of international justice into question.

With a new Chief Prosecutor in office, the ICC has an opportunity to clear all doubts about its motives by ensuring that not only Africans are brought before the court. Not only Africans commit crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the court.

Fatou Bensouda must not wait for referrals by governments or the UN Security Council. She has the independent power, in accordance with Article 15 of the Rome Statute, to open investigations proprio motu. Luis Moreno-Ocampo opened investigations proprio motu in Kenya and Ivory Coast. The prosecutor of the ICC could use this power to initiate investigations in cases where there is lack of political will to bring perpetrators of heinous crimes to justice. Talking about lack of political will - crimes [allegedly] authorized by George W. Bush of the US and Bashar al-Assad of Syria immediately come to mind.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Finland's courts crack down on hate speech and inciting hatred

Hate speech is a problem in Finland like in many other countries in Europe plagued by a surge in far-right populism, racism, xenophobia and what could be aptly termed narrow-mindedness. Victims of hate speech in Finland are commonly the "usual suspects" - immigrants, Roma and Muslims. It is worth highlighting that a poll commissioned by Helsingin Sanomat revealed that minority groups mostly affected by racism in Finland are Somalis, Muslims and the Roma. Hate speech is used by both ordinary citizens and controversial politicians who make a name for themselves by bashing ethnic, religious or national minority groups. The surge in racism and incitement of hate online prompted some officials in Finland to urge politicians to stop using hate speech to win votes. Eva Biaudet, Ombudsman for Minorities, for instance said the law should come down more heavily on hate speech. Recently, courts in Finland have sent a loud and clear message that hate speech is not protected by freedom of speech. On 8 June 2012, Finland's Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a Member of Parliament (MP), Jussi Halla-aho, for hate speech, in relation to statements he made on his blog about Somali immigrants and Islam.

The Supreme Court ordered Jussi Halla-aho, MP for the controversial "True" Finns party, to pay a fine for anti-Islamic blog posts published in 2008. The court increased the sentence of the lower court by ordering the convict to pay a higher fine and to delete certain writings from his blog. In the blog posts in question, Halla-aho reportedly likened Islam to pedophilia and said Somalis are genetically predisposed to stealing and living off welfare.

The High Court ruling comes less than two months after a court in north Karelia sentenced six people for online racism and incitement of hate against an ethnic group. The six people were sentenced in relation to comments they posted on a Facebook group that featured threats and insults against immigrants.

Such verdicts represent victories for the fight against hate speech.

Courts in Finland understand that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, as per Article 10 (2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, "carries with it duties and responsibilities" and "may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society... ."

As stated in the European Convention on Human Rights, freedom of expression could be legally restricted to protect the rights and reputation of others.

Unfortunately, a good number of people, including some "experts" in European politics, politicians and political bloggers, are unaware of the fact that expressions that incite hate are not protected by freedom of expression in Europe. Some have wrongly suggested that the conviction of Jussi Halla-aho, a politician who is famous for wrong reasons, represents war on free speechSuch an assertion is a misguided attempt to embolden proponents of hate speech and individuals who incite hate against minorities.

Those who intentionally or unintentionally confuse hate speech with free speech and attempt to defend expressions that incite hate are prone to use hate speech against vulnerable individuals or groups.

Free speech is not hate speech. The difference between the two concepts cannot be overemphasized.

A defiant Jussi Halla-aho reportedly dismissed the ruling of Finland's Supreme Court as "the personal interpretation of a few people." This goes to show that the MP despises the highest court of the country he seeks to "safe" from immigrants and multiculturalism. He says he will not resign as chairman of parliament's Administration Committee, a body which deals with immigration policy. It is unclear how a person with anti-immigration sentiments could work without bias on immigration issues. Calls for Halla-aho to resign from his post as chairman of parliament's Administrative Committee are well-grounded. He plans to challenge his conviction at the European Court of Human Rights -  an institution that knows too well, like Finland's Supreme Court, that freedom of expression does not cover hate speech and inciting hatred against minority groups.

*Photo of Jussi Halla-aho: YLE.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Michel Platini threatens victims of racism in football

Over the past couple of days, I have been shocked, appalled and outraged by a couple of things, including a misguided statement by Michel Platini, president of Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) - organizer of Euro 2012 co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. Following the release of a disturbing video report about anti-semitism and racism in stadiums in Poland and Ukraine, Mario Balotelli, a revered and at the same time controversial football striker said he would walk off the pitch if racially abused at Euro 2012. Although I did not welcome Balotelli's threat to "kill" anyone who racially abused him, I was impressed by, and welcomed his threat to walk off the pitch in protest if racially abused by racist football fans in Poland and Ukraine. But unfortunately not everyone supports players who would walk off the pitch in protest. Rarely do officials threaten to punish victims of crimes and abuse, but Michel Platini did just that when he said football players who walk off the pitch at Euro 2012 due to racial abuse will be booked.

Apparently, Michel Platini is more interested in protecting the reputation of the game than protecting and standing in solidarity with players like Mario Balotelli who are more often than not subjected to racism in the so-called "beautiful game." Listening to Platini's interview on BBC Sport, I was stroke by his "protect the game" rhetoric. The interview reveals that he is more concerned about protecting the game (his source of income) than protecting victims of racism and abuse. Players walking off the pitch in protest are - from Platini's viewpoint - bad for business.

Giving referees power to stop matches in cases where players are racially abused is not enough. Fighting racism should not be left at the discretion of referees alone. Referees have had power to take action against racism by stopping game for a number of years. [Source], but this has not solved the problem.

Players have the right to protest and they should be allowed, without fear of retribution, to walk off the field of play after being racially abused - especially when referees, stewards and police prove to be incapable or unwilling to handle the situation. Such protests would force officials like Michel Platini with vested financial interests in the game to take racism in football more seriously and take more stringent action against the social ill that damages the game and negatively impacts lives.

It is objectionable to force players to play in an environment where they feel uncomfortable, threatened and violated. Victims of racial abuse should not to issued yellow or red cards. The assertion by Michel Platini that any players who walk off the pitch at Euro 2012 due to racial abuse will be booked is misguided.

This is not the first time that a football official has downplayed the impact of racism. In 2011, Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA said football does not have a problem with racism on the field and that on-pitch racism can be solved with handshake.

UEFA has tried to combat racism, but the organization has clearly not done enough. It should not resort to forcing victims to stay on the pitch. Players should have the liberty to walk off the pitch when they feel uncomfortable and racially abused. They should not be further victimized by officials who have a duty to protect them from racist predators.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Intisar Sharif Abdallah: Woman sentenced to death by stoning in Sudan

The Republic of the Sudan, sometimes called North Sudan is famous for wrong reasons. Its President, Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The president remains a fugitive of international law and continues to use "genocidal language" against his country's new neighbors - citizens of South Sudan. In 2010, a video showing a woman flogged in public in Sudan put the spotlight on medieval forms of punishment sanctioned by Sudanese law. More recently, the story of Intisar Sharif Abdallah, a young mother sentenced to death by stoning over charges of adultery, has once again highlighted the sorry-state of human rights in the Republic of Sudan - under the leadership of Omar al-Bashir.

Intisar Sharif Abdallah, mother of three, was found guilty of adultery by the Criminal Court of Ombada, Khartoum state, Sudan and sentenced to death by stoning. She admitted the charges after being beaten by her brother and was reportedly tried without legal representation by a lawyer. She initially pleaded not guilty but later changed her plea under duress.

The man held with her for adultery was released while she was detained with her 4-month-old baby. This highlights discrimination against women - many of whom suffer persecution while their male counterparts in similar or the same situations walk free.

According to Amnesty International, the young Sudanese mother was sentenced on 13 May 2012. [Source].

The handling of the case of Intisar Sharif Abdallah is incompartible with international law in many ways. Her right to a fair trial was violated. She was denied access to a lawyer and interpreter, and was convicted based on testimony obtained under duress. She is being detained with a baby - in violation of Article 37 (b) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to which Sudan is party. She was tried while the man held with her was released - in violation of anti-discrimination laws. Above all, stoning amounts to torture and violates key international standards, including the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Sudan signed on 4 June 1986.

It goes without saying that Intisar Sharif Abdallah should not be executed. Her trial was deeply flawed and contravened international human rights standards.

Amnesty International is calling on human rights supporters to sign a petition to stop the execution of Intisar Sharif Abdallah. I signed the petition on the website of Amnesty International Finland (in Finnish). The petition is available in English on the website of Amnesty International Ireland. You're encouraged to sign it. Together we can stop this medieval form of punishment.

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