PHILADELPHIA, October 13, 2011 (AFP) â€“ A US court convicted two immigrant brothers from Ukraine of running a human trafficking ring that put fellow Ukrainians to work in near slave-like conditions at major retail chains.
The conviction Wednesday capped a nearly month-long trial in Philadelphia federal court in which jurors heard tales from desperate, mostly young men who were lured to the United States after finishing their compulsory military service and finding themselves with few prospects.
Once here, they were given jobs in harsh, barely paid positions cleaning for WalMart, Target and other retail chains.
Omelyan Botsvynyuk, 52, faces up to a life sentence and Stepan Botsvynyuk, 36, could be put behind bars for as much as 20 years, said Patricia Hartman, spokesperson for the US Attorneyâ€™s Office in Philadelphia.
The victims, many of whom came from the same area in Ukraine as Botsvynyuks, said they were promised jobs that would pay $10,000 after three years of work, as well as $500 a month stipends and free room and board.
Instead, they had their passports seized and were forced to work 16-hour shifts while living in squalid conditions, prosecutors allege. Those complaining were beaten and one woman was gang raped.
Defense attorneys argued that prosecution witnesses twisted evidence in hope of getting visas.
â€œEverybodyâ€™s got a motive and a bias,â€ Howard Popper, Omelyanâ€™s attorney said before the trial. â€œThey all came here willingly and they all approached the brothers to help them out.â€
Three others face charges. Mykaylo Botsvynyuk and Yroslav Churuk are awaiting extradition from Canada. Dmytro Botsvynyuk remains a fugitive in the Ukraine.
The big-box retailers that hired the cleaning crews typically do so through outside contractors. They are not accused by prosecutors of wrongdoing.