Prosecutions are essential in combating the horrific sex-trafficking industry, and a recent case just made the complicated process a whole lot harder. With criminal networks involving numerous countries, thousands of individuals and countless resources, prosecutions must untangle a complex web while balancing aggressive detective work and undercover investigations.
Once again, the Department of Justice’s handling - or mishandling - of a case threatens the abolitionist movement combating sex trafficking. The case of Edmond Demiraj and his family may serve a critical blow that could hinder the prosecution of modern-day slavery for years to come.
A decade ago, Mr. Demiraj agreed to be a witness against Bill Bedini, an Albanian gangster allegedly involved in numerous criminal activities, including human smuggling and sex trafficking. Mr. Demiraj agreed to testify in exchange for protection.
But before Mr. Bedini could be brought to justice, he was able to flee to Albania. Having no way to prosecute the case and because Mr. Demiraj was in the country illegally, the U.S. government decided to send him back to Albania.
It doesn’t take much creativity to guess what happened next. Mr. Demiraj says Mr. Bedini found him and shot him. But Mr. Bedini was not satisfied with that. He wanted to send a real message to all who would dare cross him, so he vowed to go after Mr. Demiraj’s family. He purportedly kidnapped two of Mr. Demiraj’s nieces to force them into sexual slavery, telling them it was “payback” for what their uncle had done.
Incredibly, Mr. Demiraj survived the attempted murder and was able to escape to the United States with his nieces. The U.S. granted Mr. Demiraj’s petition to stay in America and his nieces won asylum.
However, in a bizarre and cruel turn of events, Mr. Demiraj has been fighting ever since to obtain protection for his wife and children, who are here illegally and have been denied asylum time and again, despite allegations of numerous threats by Mr. Bedini and his thugs.
The government does not dispute the fact that Mr. Demiraj’s wife and children would be in real, life-threatening danger if they were deported to Albania, yet in a divided decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit decided that was not enough to offer asylum.
The applicable asylum law seems clear enough. It is intended to provide protection if the person is being persecuted for their membership in a particular social group, which in this case would be the Demiraj family. In fact, several other circuits would have granted asylum very easily. Yet, the appeals court drew a distinction this case by saying Mr. Bedini seeks to hurt Mr. Demiraj by hurting his wife; he does not really want to hurt her because of a “desire to hurt the Demiraj family as such.”
Judge Catharina Haynes wrote, “Mrs. Demiraj would not be any safer in Albania if she divorced Mr. Demiraj and renounced membership in the family, nor would she be any safer if she were Mr. Demiraj’s girlfriend of many years rather than his wife.”
The U.S. Supreme Court now has the opportunity to hear the case. We hope it does so, as the lower court’s decision could have a devastating effect on future prosecutions of sex-trafficking cases. If the Demiraj family is denied protection, how can we encourage others to come forward to expose those who would so brutally abuse women as to sell them for commercial sexual exploitation? The Demiraj decision sends a clear message that witnesses will be left on their own if a prosecution goes bad.
But the story doesn’t end there. The Demiraj family has been threatened repeatedly here in the United States. Mr. Bedini’s people are alleged to have vandalized their home, breaking several windows. Still, when Michael Gottlieb, the attorney representing Mrs. Demiraj and her children, asked the Justice Department for protection, it simply refused, even though it acknowledges the very significant threats she is receiving.
Mr. Gottlieb told us: “The government’s denial of asylum in this case sends a troubling message to would-be witnesses and informants, the very people who help defend us from our enemies. But its decision to withhold security from this witness’ wife and small children - whose attacker the government would put in prison if it could only catch him - is really frightening.”
Worse, we view this case as a miscarriage of justice, not merely against the Demiraj family. It is also a blow against all those who work every day to protect victims from the scourge of human trafficking and especially against all those girls and women who are more vulnerable because of bureaucratic decisions at the highest levels of justice.
Janice Shaw Crouse is director of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute. Mario Diaz is policy director for legal issues at the institute.