“Band of brothers,” the U.S. Department of Justice calls them.
But if you’re thinking World War II, parachutes behind enemy lines, battlefield heroics – wrong band.
These brothers number just five, hail from Ukraine, and stand charged with one of the most insidious crimes in the illegal immigrant underground: human trafficking.
Omelyan Botsvynyuk, 52, and Stepan Botsvynyuk, 36, are set to go on trial Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. Two more are in Canada pending extradition. One is believed to be in Ukraine, wanted by Interpol.
From 2000 to 2007, federal prosecutors charge, the brothers Botsvynyuk smuggled about 30 immigrants from their homeland to Philadelphia, promising them jobs, $500 a month, and free room and board.
Instead, the immigrants say, they were enslaved.
By night, they cleaned big-box stores and supermarkets, including Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart and Safeway, here and in New Jersey, Delaware, New York, and Maryland, according to court filings. They slept five to a bedroom on dirty mattresses or floors in Port Richmond rowhouses. Rather than paying them for their labor, the Botsvynyuks demanded $10,000 to $50,000 from each for the trip to America.
Those who tried to escape say they were beaten or sexually assaulted, and their families in Ukraine threatened.
Omelyan and Stepan Botsvynyuk have pleaded not guilty.
Their trial, which could last five weeks, is expected to pull back the curtain on what Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called one of the world’s “most profitable” and hard-to-prosecute criminal enterprises, owing to victims’ fear of reprisals for coming forward.
Trials such as the Botsvynyuks’ are rare. But trafficking is not, according to immigrant-rights groups. Some estimate that 14,500 to 17,500 people, mostly women and children, are brought to the United States each year as peons. About 600,000 more are moved among other countries to be placed in servitude.
Experts say the victims fall into two categories: those who know their entry to America is illegal, and those who’ve been misled by traffickers into believing they are properly documented. Either way, they do not think they are signing on for enslavement.
To encourage victims to cooperate with law enforcement, Congress created the “T” visa program in 2000, granting U.S. residency to victims who assist authorities in prosecuting traffickers. But since 2002, only 4,750 T visas have been issued – a measure of the climate of fear in which the immigrants live.
In the Botsvynyuk case, eight of the illegal immigrant workers – six men and two women – are cooperating with the government. They are allowed to stay in the United States for the trial, and possibly longer if they receive T visas.
They “entered this country with dreams of great opportunity, only to find themselves living a nightmare,” U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said when the indictment was announced last year. “They trusted this band of brothers . . . only to be rewarded with false promises. . . . No one trying to immigrate to this country should have to endure such mistreatment.”
If convicted on all counts, the defendants face six to 40 years in prison and fines of $250,000 to $750,000.
According to court documents, the case began with a tip from overseas.
Brothers Mykhaylo and Dmytro Botsvynyuk, now 33 and 45, reportedly were seeking workers in Ukraine for their family cleaning company in Philadelphia. Several of their recruits were veterans of military service in Ukraine and were looking for jobs.
The Botsvynyuks appeared to have come to the United States legally on tourist visas but overstayed.
Prosecutors say the Botsvynyuks arranged Mexican tourist visas for their recruits and flew them out of Germany and Poland. From Mexico, unnamed associates of the Botsvynyuks allegedly gave the immigrants American-style clothing and instructed them how to sneak across the border, primarily into southern California. They then traveled to Philadelphia, where, the indictment says, brother Yaroslav Churuk, now 43, put them into work crews.
The Botsvynyuks’ cleaning business operated under a variety of names, according to prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Velez has said the discount chains and supermarkets did not directly hire the immigrants and likely were unaware of their status.
Defense attorney Joshua Briskin, who represents Stepan Botsvynyuk, said in an interview the charges against his client “are just not true.” The alleged victims, he said, are cooperating only because “they want green cards” for permanent U.S. residency.
Attorney Howard Popper, who represents Omelyan Botsvynyuk, echoed that line of defense. The government’s witnesses, he said in an interview, “would like to get T visas. . . . That certainly motivates them to say whatever it is they are going to say.”
The indictment provides a preview of their testimony:
One woman is expected to say she was bound and raped as punishment by Omelyan Botsvynyuk, whom investigators describe as the group’s leader. He allegedly told a woman in Ukraine whose elder son escaped from the Botsvynyuks’ American operation that her younger son’s fingers and ears would be cut off and sent to her “unless she signed over her house as payment.” He also is accused of threatening to kidnap a female worker’s 9-year-old daughter and force her into prostitution to pay off the family debt.
Some prosecution witnesses are being flown in from Ukraine. For their protection, their identities will not be disclosed until they arrive here.
According to a trial brief, Omelyan Botsvynyuk’s lawyers may try to introduce testimony that he was tortured in Ukraine and forced to flee after being attacked by a gang of criminals, including government operatives, “who pulled out his gold teeth and poured scalding water into his lap.”
The government says such testimony, even if true, is irrelevant to the charges, and has asked Judge Paul S. Diamond to exclude it.
This article was written by Michael Matza and published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 13, 2011.
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