By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Five members of a gang that trafficked people from eastern Europe to Britain and forced them to live in inhumane conditions while working to pay off fictional debts were sentenced by a British court on Monday.
Czech nationals Ruzena Tancosova, Petr Tancos, Nela Dzurkova, Martin Tancos and Katerina Kerujova were found guilty of human trafficking and slavery offences at Plymouth Crown Court on Oct. 24.
On Monday, a judge handed them sentences ranging from two to six-and-a-half years behind bars.
The victims lived in squalid conditions and were forced to work in a car wash and at a meat packing factory to pay off debts their traffickers claimed they owed, according to prosecutors.
Seven male victims were freed by police during a series of raids in 2014. They were forced to sleep on the floor, in garages or in a cupboard under the stairs, police said.
The sentencing came days after Britain unveiled two multi-million pound funds to tackle modern slavery overseas and at home as part of a drive to end the crime described as a "barbaric evil" by Prime Minister Theresa May.
Prosecutors said the gang targeted vulnerable people in the Czech Republic who might not immediately be noticed as missing and trafficked them to the UK.
"They were then treated as commodities to be used however the defendants saw fit," prosecutor Ann Hampshire said in a statement.
Czech and British authorities cooperated in the case, which marked the first time a Czech prisoner was transferred to the UK to give evidence.
In September, May pledged to use 33.5 million pounds ($41 million) from the foreign aid budget to focus on combating slavery in countries that are the source of proven trafficking routes to Britain.
There are an estimated 13,000 victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude in Britain.
Britain last year passed tough anti-slavery legislation introducing life sentences for traffickers and forcing companies to disclose what they are doing to make sure their supply chains are free from slavery.
($1 = 0.8174 pounds)
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)