PHILADELPHIA – Two Ukrainian brothers were convicted Wednesday of smuggling desperate villagers into the United States to work in bondage, working long hours at little or no pay cleaning retail stores and office buildings.
The four-week trial in Philadelphia lifted the veil on human trafficking and forced labor in the U.S., with tales of rape, violence and deplorable living conditions.
"They call it modern-day slavery," Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Velez said. "It's hiding in plain sight."
Nine workers who testified described being raped, beaten or threatened by Omelyan Botsvynyuk, 52, a compact man who glared at prosecutors after the verdict and shouted at them in his native tongue as he was led out in handcuffs. He had denied the accusations when he testified.
The jury, though, found him guilty of using sexual and physical violence to intimidate workers.
He faces 20 years to life in prison on racketeering and extortion charges. His brother Stepan, 36, was convicted of the racketeering enterprise but acquitted of extortion. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
Defense lawyers had argued that the workers would say anything to get special T-visas, set aside for trafficking victims, and avoid returning to the Ukraine. At least five of the nine victims who testified may apply for the T-visas, Velez said.
The workers said they were promised $500 a month and came to pursue the American dream. Instead, they made little progress as they tried to pay off the cost of their serpentine journey to the U.S. and other debts owed to the brothers.
Authorities have said the retail stores were unaware of the situation, because they hired cleaning crews through contractors.
"I think every business should know who's working for them, but this is a common practice in all large businesses, they use subcontractors to hire workers," Velez said.
He said he hoped the verdict would lead to more prosecutions of human-trafficking cases in the United States.
The Botsvynyuk crews cleaned Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, Safeway and other retail stores, along with homes and offices in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New York and New Jersey.
Juror Joe Higgins, a Teamsters Union trucker from Northeast Philadelphia, said traffickers like the Botsvynyuks take jobs away from U.S. workers.
"They (stores) should check into what kind of contractors they're using to clean their stores. Do a little bit of digging, and make sure they're not using illegal aliens," said Higgins, 53. "Just because it's cheapest, it's not (always) right."
Defense lawyer Joshua Briskin said he was pleased the jury acquitted Stepan Botsvynyuk of the extortion charges, which included allegations of using violence and threats on the workers. He had argued that the witnesses said little about his client's role in the case.
Omelyan Botsvynyuk's lawyer, Howard Popper, said his client was "greatly disappointed in the verdict."
Prosecutors described the defendants as the "enforcers" of the enterprise in America, while brothers in the Ukraine served as recruiters. The recruiting was easy, given the lack of economic opportunity, they said.
Three other brothers were named in the indictment; two are fighting extradition from Canada, and the other has died.
Omelyan Botsvynyuk was acquitted of similar charges at a trial in the Ukraine.
Sentencing is expected to take place early next year.
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