The doors to the courthouse in the town of Halle in eastern Germany finally open just before 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 17. The electronic security gates swing open and everyone is searched. Cell phones, cameras, and backpacks are all handed in. The trial, in the courthouse of the Eastern German city of Halle -- is about to begin.
Sitting at the defense table in the courtroom are seven defendants who are, according to state prosecutors, part of a gigantic prostitution ring. There are a total of 73 defendants in the case and the charges are many: creation of and belonging to a criminal organization, assault, human trafficking, violation of immigration laws, duress, rape, pimping and violation of weapons laws. The documents of the case fill 139 thick file folders. It takes the prosecutor 41 minutes to read through the laundry list of charges.
The defendants don't look like slave traders. One of the two Italians is wearing a pony tail and pinstripes, the other sketches small pictures on the pad in front of him. The Greek woman looks like she'd rather be cooking moussaka than importing women as prostitutes.
According to the prosecution, the idea of the ring was simple: take women primarily from Eastern Europe, and bring them together with johns in Germany. At first, the gang was forced to smuggle the women over the border into Germany. Once the German Foreign Ministry loosened its rules for distributing visas at its diplomatic outposts in Kiev, Moscow and Minsk, it became much easier and cheaper. And, indeed, the list of witnesses to be called, many of them forced into prostitution by the ring, reads like an Eastern European telephone book: dozens of Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles, Belarussians and Czechs.
The beginning of the trial promises to put even more pressure on popular German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Accused of having ignored warning signs that criminal groups like this one were taking advantage of liberal visa laws, he finds himself confronted with the biggest scandal of his political career. On the eve of the trial's start, opposition politician Michael Glos of Bavaria's Christian Social Union once again indicated that Fischer should bear a large burden of the responsibility for the recent boom in this kind of organized crime and human trafficking. He even repeated his insinuation that Fischer's policies make him a "pimp" and said that as soon as pictures of the sex slaves hit the press, Fischer would be in trouble.
The trial will take many weeks to complete. Meanwhile, Fischer himself faces many weeks of investigation by a special commission created to examine his role in the visa affair. Meanwhile, the loophole used by the prostitution ring remains open.