Trafficking in Romania Photograph:( AFP )
In one of the largest child trafficking rings uncovered in Europe, more than 100 people were convicted in the UK over an operation in which dozens of minors were forced to beg and steal. But in Romania all those charged were acquitted last year after an almost decade-long trial.
"I want him to pay for everything I've suffered," says a short, frail 24-year-old Romanian who was forced into prostitution by a man who duped her.
The man with whom she fell in love trafficked her in Romania and then to Austria before she managed to escape.
"Once he hit me with a chair and almost killed me", another 31-year-old victim tells AFP, adding that the experience pushed her "to the brink of suicide".
Both women are housed in a shelter for trafficking victims in northeastern Romania and are awaiting the start of proceedings against the men who passed them around.
But their wait may be in vain, given the impunity that many perpetrators seem to enjoy in Romania.
On a national level, the number of alleged traffickers sent to court dropped from 400 in 2018 to 347 last year.
AFP gained access to hundreds of pages of judicial documents and interviewed victims, prosecutors and lawyers in different regions.
The drawbacks were apparent even in the high-profile "Tandarei" case, which spanned the UK and Romania.
In one of the largest child trafficking rings uncovered in Europe, more than 100 people were convicted in the UK over an operation in which dozens of minors were forced to beg and steal.
But in Romania all those charged were acquitted last year after an almost decade-long trial.
The Romanian judges complained about the investigation led by the anti-mafia prosecutors' department (DIICOT), saying a lot of it was "accusations based on hearsay", while leads on alleged bribes paid to local police were not followed up.
- 'Untouchable' suspects -
In its latest report about trafficking in Romania, the US State Department said "widespread complicity and the failure to incriminate officials hampered effective law enforcement".
"Trafficking networks have vast sums of money which often allows them to buy impunity," Silvia Tabusca, director of the Center for Human Rights and Migration, told AFP.
DIICOT prosecutors say that in some cases "officials from banks or town halls as well as police officers have offered protection" to trafficking rings.
Tabusca says there are sometimes also "suspicions of corruption" within the judicial system.
In a rare interview to AFP, 70-year-old Constantin Dragusin -- one of the accused ringleaders of the Tandarei gang -- admitted that "if we could have offered money (to judges) to be acquitted we would have done it, even though we're not guilty".
He says he decided against offering cash as he was convinced the judges in his case would act fairly.
"I am no mobster. I have neither stolen nor recruited any children," he said.
He says he repeatedly asked prosecutors to facilitate a meeting with the parents of the alleged victims, but this was turned down.
The deputy director of the local child protection agency, Neculai Badea, told AFP he also asked for access to the alleged victims in the Tandarei case -- but was likewise turned down.
According to Tabusca, the upshot of the Tandarei acquittals is that "the influence of the suspects within the local community has increased.
"They're are now perceived as untouchable," she says.
- 'Let them break their necks' -
Tabusca says victims' testimony is often changed or retracted during a trial.
"Physical or emotional abuse is normal for many of these children, who find it hard to realise that beyond the walls of their home there is another world where their rights are respected," Mariana Neacsu, a psychologist at the child protection agency in Ialomita county, told AFP.
In 2017, police in Romania and France arrested several dozen suspects believed to have exploited minors who were forced to steal on the Parisian subway.
In France, 20 members of this ring were jailed. But in Romania the case is still before the courts.
According to the prosecution indictment, more than 100 files had been opened by Romanian investigators into thefts committed by children of nine suspects in the ring.
But proceedings only began when French authorities asked for a joint investigation.
Spania and her husband Gheorghe are two of the nine suspects facing trial in the case in the north-eastern city of Iasi.
The indictment includes the transcript of a phone call intercepted by French police in which a friend warns Spania that her daughters, aged 12 and 14, have been arrested in Paris.
"I will not go look for them, let them break their necks", Spania is recorded as saying.
The couple deny the charges and their lawyer Ciprian Mitoseriu told AFP "there is reason to believe that the children stole on their own".
Prosecutors have interviewed 20 minors suspected of being trafficked by their parents, but none of them were prepared to testify.
For Tabusca, another failure of Romanian investigators is that they don't "follow the money and find the real beneficiary".
"The networks quickly regenerate, even if traffickers are convicted", she said.
In another suspected trafficking ring which crossed Romania's borders, the money generated was estimated at more than a million dollars.
The alleged head of that network was recently extradited to the United States, suspected of masterminding the smuggling of thousands of Romanians into the US and subsequently forcing them into begging.
He was previously tried in Romania along with six alleged accomplices and all were acquitted.