Poor people are being lured from Eastern Europe to the Czech Republic for forced labour. Some of the worst gangsters are now on trial but there is no sign of this evil trade coming to an end.
By Adrian Mogoş, Petru Zoltan, Doru Cobuz in Romania, Vitalie Călugăreanu in Moldova and Vlad Lavrov in Ukraine
While pricey restaurants in Berlin or Amsterdam serve fresh asparagus plucked from fields in the Czech Republic, none of the appreciative diners has the slightest idea that this much-loved item is only on their dinner plates thanks to the backbreaking work carried out by modern-day slaves - men and women lured from poor countries on false pretences and then held captive - beaten and threatened by armed guards if they ask for food, their wages or try to escape.
Our three month investigation in Romania, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Transnistria - a breakaway state from Moldova - Ukraine and The Netherlands, has uncovered the way in which a brutal criminal network of Ukrainian-run gangs recruited hundreds of victims to work effectively as slaves in Bohemia for years before the network was broken up this spring.
All the 40 victims of this from Romania whom we interviewed had been lured to an asparagus farm in Hostín u Vojkovic in 2007 and 2008, to toil for Bohaemer Spargel Kultur, BSK, a Czech firm owned by a Dutch company Procint B.V. None of them were neither paid nor decently fed and say they felt lucky to escape.
An ongoing investigation into forced labour into the BSK fields by Czech and Romanian police has revealed that at least 300 Romanians were trapped into forced labour there in 2007, 2008 and 2009. A more recent probe has revealed that Bulgarian Roma, Ukrainian and Moldovans also worked there for free.
It took Czech police two years to raid the premises of BSK in February after being first informed of what was going on in 2007. The raid led to the release of the remaining workers and the break-up of the organised crime network that had ensnared them.
The dupes were recruited by Ukrainian and Romanian agents of the gang leaders who promised them good salaries, accommodation and food.
Most victims that we interviewed independently identified Vasyl Bentsa, the Ukrainian owner of a Czech recruiting company, Bear Loging, as ringleader of the gangs who trapped them. Czech police arrested Bentsa in February and his trial is ongoing. We approached legal office of his defence lawyer, Jiři Teryngel, but we were told he would decline to comment.
It was Bentsa's company, Bear Loging, which had a contract with BSK to supply them with workers. BSK's chief executive, Will Teeuwen, maintains he only found out about the conditions of the workers following Bentsa's arrest.
"There was no direct labour contract between BSK and the Romanian, Bulgarian and Moldavian workers," he said. "This was between the contractor, Bear Loging, and the workers".
Teeuwen's firms exports asparagus and other vegetables from Spain and Italy to Britain, Japan and elsewhere. BSK products are on sale in Germany and The Netherlands and to major supermarket chains, including Tesco outlets in the Czech Republic.
No wages, just beatings
Corina Rahoveanu stands in front of her parents-in laws' cottage in a village in the southern Prahova region of Romania. In her late twenties, she dandles a baby in one arm while two other children run around. She and her children live in a single room made of mud and straw attached to her in-laws' cottage.
Desperate to earn some money last year, Corina left in spring 2008 for the asparagus fields in the Czech Republic, where she knew her husband and brothers-in-law were already working.
A member of a network of people across Romania, who find people to work abroad, recruited her. It later transpired that the agent belonged to the southern Romanian branch of Bentsa's extensive network.
Bus travel was organized to get her and the other recruits to Prague where people of Ukrainian origin awaited them and transported them to the fields.
"When I got there, I found my husband and brothers-in-law not in great shape. They had been beaten and almost starved," she recalls. "I had to work even on Sundays and if I said no, I was threatened with a beating."
Corina says they worked in the fields under Ukrainians carrying shotguns who hit anyone that dared ask about the wages they'd been promised or protested over the conditions and hours.
Around 400 hundred men and women were kept working around the clock, sleeping in a dormitory, and they were not allowed to leave the fields unless their Ukrainian bosses transferred them to constructions sites or slaughterhouses.
One of Corina's brothers-in-law thought he had been given a proper job contract, albeit written in Czech. He later found his bit of paper was a worthless license to rent a garage.
After two months of working for free under these armed guards, Corina knew she'd never get any money. When she and her husband protested, they threatened to sell her off to a pimp to work as a prostitute in Prague. Finally, she, her husband and one brother-in-law fled the camp by night in the summer of 2008.
Fifty-year-old Costică Chiriac, from the village of Gorbănești, in northern Romania tells a similar story. He too became a modern-day slave and only escaped from the BSK fields after working for nothing for several shocking months.
Together with his daughter, he worked in the BSK fields and some other sites from May to July 2008. When they finally fled the farm, they ran through the night for six hours, crossing 45 kilometres. "Fear kept me running," he told us.
"My daughter and I worked for three months for nothing - fed only on bread and boiled plums," he said. "They hit us to make us work faster. We barely could sleep in the dorm because of the cuts and bruises."
His main fear was for his 16-year-old daughter whom their Ukrainian foreman made sleep in the same bed with a male Chinese worker. The guard said she should marry the Chinese man so he could get Romanian citizenship and an EU passport for which he was apparently ready to pay the guard.
Chiriac and his daughter were lured to the Czech Republic by one of their own relatives who put them in contact with a man later charged with being part of Benta's criminal network. Chiriac said he found out later the recruiters were paid 150 to 200 euros for each worker they delivered to Prague.
Some of the workers effectively trapped in BSK's fields only escaped after Romanian diplomats in Prague found out what was going on.
Consulate official Iulian Gheorghiu says the embassy received a call in March 2007 from a man trapped at the asparagus farm who said they were working in appalling conditions but couldn't explain where the farm was or who the owner was. He knew only that it was close to Prague, near a painted wall.
The embassy contacted the Czech police who explained to the embassy how to tell the people to escape. In this way, 67 workers soon fled the Ukrainian guards who, however, kept hold of their ID papers and money.
Almost every week after that, groups of workers began escaping from the fields and appearing at the Romanian embassy. But while the Czech police was first informed of what was going in 2007, it was only in February this year that they finally raided the farm and a nearby dormitory and released 36 people found there.
One problem was that the foreign workers tended to avoid contact with the Czech police, being scared to talk to the authorities.
Some, such as the Ukrainians and Moldovans, had no right to be in the EU at all. Others, like the Romanians, were working without due permits.
David Rodr, a Czech liaison officer for Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria and Ukraine, defended the slow pace of the Czech police investigation, saying the victims "didn't give officers enough information and data, so police couldn't identify their abusers... How could we help the victims since they didn't even speak Czech?" Rodr asked.
According to a 2007 report of the Romanian National Agency against Trafficking in Persons, (http://anitp.mira.gov.ro/ro/), by that year the Czech Republic had become a top destination for trafficking Romanians for the purposes of forced labour.
The Czech Republic had been in 10th place on a 2006 black list of countries into which Romanians were being trafficked. By 2007, according to ANITP, it had risen to 3rd place - partly because Romania had by then entered the EU, meaning they had freedom of movement into the EU.
The Ukrainian bosses
Prosecutors and police from the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism, DIICOT, which is part of the Romanian General Prosecutors' Office, started investigating the recruiters' networks in March 2007, monitoring two different networks in northern and southern Romania.
Bentsa's name surfaced as overall boss of both. The 31-year-old Ukrainian citizen, then living in the Czech Republic, his right-hand man, Volodymyr Dublenych, 37, and another associate, Mykhaylo Zavatskyy, 25, also Ukrainians were arrested in February in a small town 50km from Prague and charged with trafficking human beings and with establishing and running organized crime network.
Bentsa established Bear Loging CZ s.r.o, the front company tasked with providing workers for the Czech asparagus fields among other sites in 2003, according to the Czech Companies Register. Bentsa and his associates set up a number of interconnected companies in the Czech Republic.
Bear Loging's headquarters were located in a ninth-storey rented apartment in the town of Mělník, on 2723 Sportovni St. The company had five registered employees. Now empty, only the metal post box at the entrance hall of the building, with Bear Loging written in handwriting, recalls its existence.
Bentsa comes from the village of Krychovo, in the Ukraine's western Transcarpathian region, not far south of Lviv. Neither Bentsa nor Dublenych has any criminal record in Ukraine or a business registered in the country, according to Ukrainian official data.
In Krychovo, and in other small villages in the region, cars with Czech registration plates can often be seen, as well as advertisements to work in the Czech Republic.
Bentsa's relatives and neighbours confirmed that he and his companions took people abroad to work in the Czech Republic. At the clean, white family house, where we posed as businessmen offering plenty of cheap labour to send abroad, Bentsa's father insisted his son was innocent. He had been working for others in eastern Ukraine, he said. His son would never work with Romanians again, he added. "Once bitten by the snake..." he added.
The southern and northern network
In the southern part of Romania, in the county of Prahova, around 20 victims told us that several people came in 2008, looking for unemployed people who were willing to go to Bucharest and later to Prague to work.
Gabriel Niță, 38, owner of two companies in Romania, was arrested in Romania in September 2008 as ringleader of southern branch. His trial is ongoing but he was let out in mid-December 2009 to defend himself at liberty.
Ionuț Mateescu, his lawyer, says his client was only an employee of the Czech company, and drove a bus from Romania to Prague to transport the workers because he knew the Czech language. "The prosecutor doesn't have enough evidence - only 36 victims' statements, which are not enough to convict", he said.
Romanian prosecutors have identified 50 victims of the southern branch, among them two young people aged 16 and 17, who ended up in the BSK asparagus fields at Hostín u Vojkovic.
In the northern, poor part of Romania, in the county of Botoșani, ten victims we interviewed said a man named Laurențiu Drangă had recruited them. This 46-year-old from the city of Botoșani was arrested in March 2009 in Romania, as head of the northern branch and charged with delivering 120 workers to Bentsa.
None of the lawyers that initially defended him are his attorneys any longer. The prosecutor in charge of the case said he had since been released to defend himself at liberty, like Niță. Despite many efforts, he or his lawer couldn't be reached.
The Romanian prosecutor's list of criminal network members also mentions Nurdy Antaev, another Ukrainian, as a part of the northern branch. The same name popped up in a conversation in a bar in Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria, where we interviewed four other former forced labourers taken to the Czech Republic.
They said they had been taken to work in asparagus fields but didn't know the name of the place or the company. They had experienced the same abuse as the others. Sașa Toridkă, aged 52, said Antaev and Oksana Golubeva, a woman in her early fifties, ran their own modern slave network together. Others confirmed. They have been taken to Golubeva's brother in Odessa and later to Czech Republic.
Neither name is known to the authorities of Transnistria or Moldova, however. When we tried to find Antaev and Golubeva in the Ukrainian town of Odessa, we located Golubeva's elderly brother. Asked about his sister's business activities, he simply shut the door and threatened to come back out with a shotgun.
We didn't know what was going on
The BSK asparagus fields in Hostín u Vojkovic looked deserted when we visited in May. BSK was established in 1995 and farms asparagus on 129 hectares. In the courtyard there stood several empty silos and a few parked tractors, ready to plough the field.
Only one man, a guard, was there, waiting to start his shift. We could not find Michal Cervenka, the agronomist employed by BSK, who has given several interviews about BSK's exports to markets in Germany, the Netherlands and to Tesco supermarkets in Czech Republic.
In 2006 he told a Czech agricultural website, www.agroweb.cz, that all the workforce at BSK, comprising almost 200 people, came from abroad, especially Eastern Europe, while the harvesting was coordinated by a Dutch specialist.
We asked the guard to put us in contact with Cervenka but after making a few phone calls he said he was not available. He would not give us Cervenka's telephone number.
Next stop was the headquarters of Procint, the company that owns BSK, at Zandberg Street in Helden, in southeast Holland. At number 15, there was no sign of Procint, however. Instead there was the sign for a company called Teboza Holding B.V. The connection between Procint and Teboza is Will Teeuwen, owner and chief executive of Procint and Teboza. Both companies are big suppliers of asparagus.
The other Procint executive is Fernando Mora Figueroa Domecq, 70, of Spain, who runs an agricultural empire through companies such as Grupo Carrizuelo Investment, Complejo Agricola SA, Inversora y Comercial SA, Agricola Conagralsa S.L. and which stretches from Spain and the Netherlands to Britain.
Teboza's website says the company won the Prix d'Sparanghel in 2006 and that its clients include a number of luxurious restaurants in Maastricht, Rotterdam and Waalre as well as a five-star hotel in Amsterdam. Teboza also sponsors two local football teams playing in the lower Dutch divisions.
In February 2009, the company entered the Japanese market.
According to the Dutch Companies Register, Procint was established in 1987 and specializes in asparagus importing and trading. A medium-sized business, it sold 800,000 euros' worth of asparagus in 2005.
Teeuwen was not available when we reached Helden but answered questions about the Czech situation, via email, later on. "Our company intention is that they work at our farm with pleasure, so that they will return the following years" he said, concerning his East European labour force.
Asked about Bentsa and Dublenych, the two Ukrainians arrested in the Czech Republic for trafficking, Teeuwen said they had visited BSK and had offered Bear Loging's services as a duly registered Czech company. "I have never met these gentlemen," he added.
His company had never had direct contact with the workers, which was handled by Bear Loging. "Our policy is not to interfere within the internal affairs of the partner company, as the managers bear the full responsibility for their actions," he said. Bear Loging had arranged the accommodation and facilities for workers and the Czech manager of BSK was only the interface in relations with Bentsa.
After the arrest of the two Ukrainians, the BSK company had severed ties with Bear Loging. "We only came to know about these abuses when the police started their investigations and we have supplied all facts and figures to the officials concerned", Teeuwen said.
Ian Hutchins, spokesman for Tesco in London, said this supermarket chain has never sourced product directly from BSK.
However, he added: "Our initial investigation confirms that two suppliers in the Czech Republic have in the past traded with BSK and we are working with them to establish the facts".
Former slave labourers like Chiriac have received no compensation for what they endured. He is trying to rebuild his life. But he sold all his goats to raise money to get to the Czech Republic. "I will never leave my house again. I won't go again to work abroad," he says.
"What happened there was more than enough for me. I just hope my daughter can get over that nightmare. Maybe there is somebody up there," he said, pointing at the sky, "who will judge them".
This article was developed with support by the European Fund for Investigative Journalism www.journalismfund.eu
This investigation was done with support from the Scoop, a Danish support structure for investigative journalism
"It was all about getting the money for my son's wedding," says 42-year-old Ukrainian, remembering how he was lured into months of forced labour in the Czech Republic by a fellow villager, though he was lucky enough to escape and get back home.
His recruiter, a 39-year-old named Serghei, now under investigation in Ukraine, promised him two euros an hour. For this money, Vitaliy, not his real name, who is under a witness-protection program, as the key witness for the case, had to work at a furniture factory.
According to the Center for Peace, Conversion and Foreign Policy, a Kyiv-based think-tank, the Czech embassy is one of the toughest in issuing visas for Ukrainian citizens. Yet, there was no problem in obtaining short-term tourist visas through a travel agency.
When Vitaliy arrived at the factory site things soon turned sour. The factory was in the middle of a field, approximately 12 kilometres from the nearest village. In addition, the site was surrounded by a fence, with around the clock security.
According to Vitaliy's police testimony, the working day usually lasted for 18 to 20 hours. Contrary to what they were promised in Ukraine, he had to pay for food and lodging at the nearby barracks, so this was extracted from his wage of two euros per hour. The prices were kept high enough, so that by the evnd of first week of work, Vitaliy already owed money to his employer.
Vitaliy worked at the factory for nearly eight months, until he lost part of his finger in an accident. Surgery used up all his tiny savings. After that, he said he was driven to Prague and thrown out of the car near the metro station - without any money. Fortunately, Vitaliy heard people standing next to him speaking Ukrainian. Those were more fortunate immigrants, who worked legally, and were able to give him some money to get home.
The rest of Ukrainians are still there, as the factory continues working, due to the lengthy investigation process involving the authorities of two countries. "There is a man who has worked there for two years", says Mykhaylo Soroka who runs the Zhytomyr regional police trafficking department, northern Ukraine. "He doesn't have a passport, or relatives, and is happy enough just working for food".
The majority of Moldovans who managed to reach the Czech Republic use tourist visas, like their Ukrainians colleagues. Others use forged or fake Latvian, Lithuanian or Polish passports. Early in 2008, Moldovan police apprehended a criminal group producing these fake ID papers. Investigators concluded that every person who intended to reach EU states had paid around 4,500 euros for this service.
In 2009, police from Moldova's Organized Crime unit arrested several people who under the cover of a sports federation were trafficking migrants westwards, especially to the Czech Republic. Constantin Mereacre, vice-president of that federation, let his travel company be used for such illegal activities as every client paid between 3,000 and 4,500 euro.
Gheorghe Hrihorișan, 52, Romanian citizen of Ukrainian origin is facing a trial for selling hundreds of Romanians to several Ukrainians for years. He is charged of coordinating for many years a team of recruiting, transporting and putting workers on the Czech market. He conducted his business from his house in his village on the river Tisa, which divides Romania and Ukraine.
The Romanian authorities estimates Hrihorișan sold 600 people. As an answer for his defence he blames the police zeal and a small local entrepreneurs' conspiracy to take him out from the market.
Hrihorișan is now free, but still facing the trial, after being arrested for 13 months. He is facing a sentence of 5 to 20 years in prison according to the Romanian Penal Code. Hrihorișan is not for the first time charged with such offences as in 2004 he was under investigation for similar case but then the prosecutors couldn't prove his guilt.
Ludovic Rachovan is a retired police officer from the Border Police. He worked on the 600 people case and believes Hrihorișan should stay for a long period behind bars for what he did to men who were sold like livestock to Ukrainians for the Czech market. "The main problem the prosecutor is facing now is that of 110 victims he interrogated many can't come to court because they don't have any money," the former officer said.
Asparagus is a popular vegetable in Western Europe, especially in Germany and the Low Countries. The price varies between 3 and 13 euro/kg depending on its quality and kind. According to the AC Nielsen, a global marketing research firm, around 10 million euro is spent in Holland each year buying fresh asparagus from supermarkets. Asparagus cultivation and harvesting requires a workforce, which is included in the price. It is estimated that in the majority of Dutch farms the cost with workforce represents 50 per cent the total price of a kg of asparagus.
During our investigation we have discovered that Bentsa and his conational business partners have many companies in the Czech Republic working in the same field. Some, like Forum-I v.o.s. or Zlynka v.o.s. have a list of shareholders comprising almost 500 people from Belarus, Georgia, Russian Federation, Ukraine, Moldova and Transnistria.
Among these 500 were two Romanians. Ion Al-Radi, 31, from a village in southern Romania, said he was not confident to talk and when he did, nervousness could be sensed in his voice. Al-Radi confessed he worked for the several Ukrainians in the Czech Republic but he was sure he was not involved with any company.
"I don't know what papers I signed. They ordered: 'Sign!' and I obeyed", he said. "When they need my documents they took my passport, make a copy and returned it afterwards".
It is possible to suspect that all 500 shareholders were all workers asked to do same thing as Al-Radi did, signing without knowing what. It is not clear what could be behind this scheme, but the police or prosecutors would for sure have a problem to trace all "shareholders" across Europe.
Beaten and ashamed
If some victims are willing to talk about their humiliation, many are still afraid to step forward because they are ashamed of what they suffered. Romulus Ungureanu, the head of ANITP Romania, talked about a tragic-comic situation. A victim assisted by ANITP who had worked in the Czech Republic came back to his village and when he was asked how was at work abroad he said it was perfect. In fact, he was severely beaten. He later confessed to prosecutors that he only said that because he didn't want his fellow villagers to laugh only at him.