Updated at 11:00 a.m. EDT on 2013-03-29
Fifteen Vietnamese women have been forced into sex slavery after going to work in Russia, according to one of them who managed to escape following a one-year ordeal at a Moscow brothel but is still living in fear of her captors.
Huynh Thi Be Huong said she was among four women who initially fled the Vietnamese-run brothel in January and, through relatives back home, sought help from the Vietnamese Embassy at the Russian capital.
But possible links between an official at the embassy, who had handled their case, and the brothel owner led to their recapture by the brothel's ringleaders, she told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Be Huong said she and another woman finally managed to break free from the clutches of the prostitution ring but the 13 others are still trapped in the brothel.
Speaking after her return home in early March, she said the official at the embassy who is suspected of having links with the prostitution ring is a relative of the brothel’s owners.
Before letting her return to Vietnam, embassy officials and brothel owners had forced her to sign a statement saying that the brothel owners had not harmed her, Be Huong said.
Be Huong also said that she is afraid to return to her hometown, Go Quao, in southern Vietnam’s Kien Giang province, for fear of being targeted by traffickers again.
“I’m still scared but my wish is to rescue all the women left behind so I’m willing to do whatever I can,” she told RFA this month.
Interpol in Vietnam said it has alerted its Russian counterpart about the case, but it was not immediately clear whether the Russian authorities have begun investigations on the issue.
A Russian news agency reported last week that two Vietnamese women who had allegedly been exploited for sex slavery have been freed from an illegal Moscow brothel, but details on the victims were not explained.
Forced into sex slavery
Be Huong, 27, said she went to Moscow in December 2011 expecting a three-month stint at a restaurant, but instead discovered that she had been sold to work as a prostitute in the brothel.
“It is a house with three rooms, and when the clients came we laid out the mats and that was how we worked,” she said.
The brothel, which served mostly Vietnamese clients, was run by a woman in her 40s from central Vietnam’s Nghe An province.
Be Huong identified her as Thuy An, saying she beat the women working there severely and controlled the money they received from clients.
“She assigned people to guard us. She did not let newcomers go out. Everybody had to work.”
“For each customer we served, we got points, which were added up in a book. At the end of the month, the points would be divided in half: half for her, half for us.”
“If we did not obey her and work, she would punish us to the extent where we could not lift our heads,” she said.
One of those brought was as young as 16 years old when she arrived, she said.
When contacted by RFA last month, Thuy An said she was not breaking the law.
“I’m running a legal business. I have been living here for many years. I don’t want to have any bad rumors about my name,” Thuy An, who also goes by An Ot, told RFA last month.
But Be Huong said the women were forced to work as sex slaves and that Thuy An had urged her to ask her relatives back home to send ransom money to allow her to be sent home.
“For one year and two months, I could not send a single dong [a unit of Vietnamese currency] back to my family, and I still was forced to work,” Be Huong said.
Making a break for it
Then in January, Be Huong escaped from the brothel with three other women—Thu Linh, Ngan Giang, and Nguyen Pham Thai Ha—and while living in hiding from the brothel owners in Moscow contacted relatives asking for help to get back home.
“She told me to report it to the police. I reported it to the police [in Vietnam], and they contacted the Vietnamese Embassy in Russia,” said Be Huong’s mother Le Thuy, in Kieng Gang province, who had not heard from her daughter for a year until then.
Refused help from the embassy
Relatives put her in touch with the Vietnamese Embassy in Moscow who refused to help them, and shortly afterward they were recaptured by the traffickers, according to Be Huong.
“I got the number of Nguyen Dong Trieu, who is in charge of security matters at the embassy. I called him but he refused to help us,” Be Huong said.
Trieu, a consular envoy at the embassy, had told Be Huong that prostitution is not illegal in Russia so there was nothing he could do to help, according to her sister Danh Hui, who lives in Texas and contacted the U.S.-based trafficking organization Coalition to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA) for help with the case.
“Be Huong told me that he said in Russia, prostitution is legal, unlike the way it is in Vietnam or other countries. He said it as if he did not want to help her,” Danh Hui said.
Recaptured by brothel owners
Shortly after the women contacted Trieu, the four women were recaptured by the brothel owners in February, Be Huong said.
She later found out Trieu was a relatives of Thuy An’s, and that Thuy An often called him “brother” or “uncle,” she said.
“Two days after my talk with Trieu, Thuy An, Huy, and another man came to our hiding place,” and forced the women to go back to the brothel, Be Huong said.
“We had no choice and could not resist.”
Be Huong’s mother said no one knew how the brothel owners learned where the women were hiding, and her sister said that it was only after the women got in touch with Trieu that they were found.
“After Be Huong talked to a man at the Vietnamese Embassy, she got caught,” she said.
Trieu refused to comment when contacted by RFA last month.
Back at the brothel, Thuy An beat the women until their faces were swollen for running away, Be Huong said.
But Be Huong was not beaten because she had been in touch with embassy officials, she said.
“She thought that if she gave me any bruises then when the embassy sent for me they would see them.”
Forced to write a letter at the embassy
In March, Thuy An told Be Huong she was letting her go and brought her to the embassy in Moscow.
“She said, ‘It’s because you couldn’t do your job that I’m letting you go, not because of what your sister in the U.S. has done,” Be Huong said.
At the embassy, a staff member named Kien, who knew Thuy An, forced Be Huong to write a letter saying that what she had told her relatives about Thuy An was not true, and that Thuy An and embassy officials were helping her to return to Vietnam.
“He told me to write a letter saying, ‘Thank you for the help from Thuy An and the embassy, who got involved so that I could go back to Vietnam.’”
Be Huong wrote the letter and was put on a plane, arriving back in Vietnam on March 3.
Thuy An also told her to call her relatives and retract what she had alleged about Thuy An, she said.
But Be Huong remains concerned about the women still in Russia and is still hiding from “Thuy An’s people” in Vietnam, she said.
“I hope she will be punished by the law and my friends will be freed,” Be Huong said.
“Be Huong has to hide in Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] and dare not go home because [Thuy An] sent people to our place,” her sister said.
In Texas, Danh Hui has raised her sister’s case with Texas lawmakers Sheila Jackson and Al Green, who has promised to “do what he can.”
Thao Vu, the sister of one of the 13 women left behind at the brothel, Pham Thi Be Trang, said she had not heard from her and was working with CAMSA to get her back home.
Through CAMSA, Thao Vu, who lives in California, has submitted information on the case to California congresswomen Zoe Lofgren.
Reported by Gwen Ha for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.