South East: Trafficking Gang Jailed

Five members of an organised crime gang from London and the South East who brought women from Hungary to the UK to work as prostitutes have been jailed.

Hungarian nationals Mate Puskas, Zoltan Mohacsi, Istvan Toth and Peter Toth, and Puskas's former girlfriend Victoria Brown, from Bognor, West Sussex, brought at least 44 women into the country over almost two years, setting them up in hotels and flats, including at the University of Sussex campus, and uploading their profiles on to a website which advertised sexual services for sale, the court was told.

The defendants, including the Toth brothers, from Eastbourne, who are on the run and were sentenced in their absence, were found guilty yesterday of conspiring to traffic women into the UK for sexual exploitation following a seven-week trial at Hove Crown Court.

Talking to the remaining three defendants, Judge Richard Hayward told them they had committed offending behaviour which "society finds repugnant''.

Puskas, from Croydon, was jailed for six years, Brown for three years, and Mohacsi, from Ilford, east London, was jailed for four years for conspiracy to traffic women into the UK.

Istvan and Peter Toth were jailed for five years and four years respectively for the same offence, but both had nine months added to their sentences after being convicted of Contempt of Court for breaking bail.

Judge Hayward said the women, some of them barely adults, were brought into the country and put up in hotels and flats in East Sussex, Kent (including a brothel in Margate) Gatwick, Manchester, Leeds, Cardiff and Glasgow.

Adverts were placed on an adult website offering sexual services including unsafe sex and extreme sexual acts and the charges were fixed, he continued.

One woman who was sent back to Hungary because she was under age, was forced to work in Austria and Germany as a prostitute to pay back her air fare to the UK, he said.

Customers who were using the women thought they were texting them directly, when in reality they were texting the defendants who fixed times and charges, and decided where and how long the women would work for, he told the court.

Puskas, 26, was told that even though he was younger than his co-conspirators he had "business acumen'' and was undoubtedly at the heart of the operation.

The judge said: "You were at the centre of the conspiracy and very much in control.

``This conspiracy was an extension of your career which you had already chosen.''

Brown, 25, was described by Judge Hayward as a "loyal lieutenant'' to Puskas, who was drawn skilfully into the operation by her boyfriend over a period time.

She wept as he told her she had run an unattractive defence of duress, seeking to blame her actions on Puskas, the father of her 21-month-old son.

He said: "It is very sad to see you in the dock. You are intelligent, you come from a respectable family, you had a good job, and you threw it all away for Mate Puskas.''

Nicholas Hamblin, representing Brown, told the court she had performed "secretarial activities'' and "was acting to a certain extent under pressure''.

Mr Hamblin added that she had made no personal gain from the trafficking and that loans of £21,000 taken out on behalf of Puskas had left her bankrupt.

The court was told that Mohacsi, 36, was one of the middle conspirators whose common-law wife and sister-in-law both worked as prostitutes in Hungary and the UK.

Hugh Mullan, mitigating on his behalf, said: "He preyed upon an economically deprived area of Hungary.

"It (prostitution) was rife in that area and he did not create the rifeness of that situation.

"His wife was an active prostitute and carried on after he was taken into custody. She is heavily pregnant and due to give birth to their first son in February.''

The court also heard from barristers representing 35-year-old Istvan Toth and his brother Peter.

Aleksander Lloyd, representing 28-year-old Peter Toth, said he was not considered to be one of the leading actors in the case and that he had been referred to as the "gentleman pimp'' by the prosecution because he acted with kindness and courtesy to some of the girls involved.

During the trial, jurors heard that many of the women had come to the UK to escape financial difficulties at home.

Their flights were paid for by the defendants and the debts were used as a hold over the women who were forced to work for up to 12 hours a day.

Prosecutor David Walbank told the court that the women were seeing up to 10 to 15 men a day and charging #100 an hour.

He said many of the women were victims of financial extortion only being left with 10% of their daily earnings while the defendants took the rest.

Threats and force were used as forms of coercion and one woman was told that posters would be put up in her home town telling people about what she was doing if she did not comply, Mr Walbank said.

Portia Ragnauth, Acting Chief Crown Prosecutor CPS South East, said that no one could imagine how desperate the victims were in this case.

She said: "I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the bravery of the victims who gave evidence in this case, one who gave evidence from behind a screen in the UK and two others who gave evidence via a live video-feed from Hungary.

"We know how incredibly difficult it was for them, especially as we know that the reach of this criminal group extends back to Hungary.

"It has not been easy for them, but we hope that today's verdict brings them justice and allows them to now move on with their lives.

"The CPS was assisted greatly by the police and judicial authorities in Hungary to bring this prosecution. Without this cross-border cooperation achieving justice for these women would have been considerably more difficult.''

A University of Sussex spokeswoman said the case did not relate to activities by staff or students but that a flat on its campus was one of many locations across the region used for prostitution purposes.

She said the safety of the thousands of students living on campus was of paramount importance to the university.

A Home Office spokesman said the gang was caught following several raids, including at an internet cafe in Croydon, by its Immigration Enforcement Criminal Investigations team in October 2012.

Following the sentencing, he said the majority of the trafficked women had returned to Hungary.

He said the Toth brothers were still wanted men and that those sentenced today would be deported when they are released from prison.

David Fairclough, from the Home Office's Immigration Enforcement Criminal Investigations team, said: "This appalling gang preyed on the vulnerability of young women who came to the UK in the hope of finding a better life. They controlled the women mentally, physically and financially.

"Our officers dismantled their despicable network and they are now where they belong - behind bars.

"Any form of trafficking will not be tolerated. It is a disgusting crime and, working with our law enforcement colleagues at home and abroad, we will do all we can to stop it and bring those involved to justice.''

Security Minister James Brokenshire described it as an appalling case trading in human misery to make a profit.

He said: "I am thankful that these criminal slave masters have been stopped and brought to justice.

"Slavery has no place in Britain and the Home Secretary and I have made clear our personal commitment to stamp it out.

"Action is being taken on a number of fronts; the newly launched National Crime Agency is leading an enhanced and co-ordinated response to targeting trafficking gangs, and we have published a draft Modern Slavery Bill.

"The Bill, introduced later this year, will send the strongest possible message to criminals that if you are involved in this disgusting trade in human beings, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be locked up.''

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