PLEA bargains spare child victims from being re-traumatized in trials to prosecute cases involving trafficking of minors for online sexual exploitation.
The recent convictions of three online traffickers of minors through plea bargaining was hailed by Cordova Mayor Mary Therese Sitoy-Cho and International Justice Mission (IJM) Cebu Field Office Director John Tanagho, reported SunStar Cebu last Dec. 14.
Plea bargains or agreements work out a mutually acceptable arrangement where the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense. This results in a lighter sentence and at the same time, especially in cases involving children, such as child sex abuse and online sexual exploitation, the minors are spared from having to testify in court.
While livestreaming the sexual abuse of children to online clients, three women were arrested in 2017 and early this year in separate police entrapment operations. Two of the women were aged 17 at the age of arrest and, as minors, “were placed under the disposition program, pursuant to the provisions of Republic Act 9344, or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act,” reported SunStar Cebu.
The mother of the four-year-old victim rescued in Minglanilla, along with another victim aged 15, was sentenced to15 years in prison for attempted trafficking and an additional two months for possession of child pornography, as well as fines and damages.
The three women pleaded guilty to “qualified trafficking and child pornography charges.”
According to the US Department of State “2018 Trafficking in Persons Report,” “The Government of the Philippines fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”
The report recognized the Philippine government’s “use of plea agreements in the conviction of 19 traffickers in seven trafficking cases involving online sexual exploitation of children, which reduced the potential for re-traumatization of child victims who served as witnesses as well as the litigation time.”
The same report also noted that the use of plea agreements complemented the Supreme Court’s “revised guidelines for continuous trial of criminal cases to streamline the litigation process”.
As Sitoy-Cho pointed out in the SunStar Cebu report, the recent convictions signal that the “days of impunity are over for criminals that sexually abuse children online.” She said she hopes that the justice given to the minor victims may encourage others to report also other cases of abuse.
In the cases assisted by the IJM, there have been “49 convictions of persons who trafficked children into online sexual exploitation in the Philippines,” reported SunStar Cebu.
Tanagho observed that justice is still observed as “a sentence of 15 years is still quite long and sufficient to punish the accused while providing justice and closure for the victims”.
On the other hand, the “2018 Trafficking in Persons Report” also highlighted problems in prosecution: “endemic efficiencies” and “corruption” in the litigation process that “left nearly 1,200 trafficking cases pending in the judicial system.”
While the government’s use of plea agreements led to the “conviction of 19 traffickers in seven trafficking cases involving online sexual exploitation of children,” the government failed to ensure child victims were not re-traumatized in all phases of the entire process from investigation to prosecution.
Re-traumatization refers to situations that force a victim to relive the experience of violence, particularly sexual abuse, when they are required to testify in court and answer incessant questioning from authorities, journalists, and others.
While the government wages the fight to rescue minors, women and other victims from sexual exploitation, it must also ensure that victims do not survive one form of violence to be exposed to another form in the search for justice.