By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, July 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A series of speedy legal orders in human trafficking cases in India has raised hopes for thousands survivors facing drawn-out court battles, but experts warn that justice remains elusive for most victims.
Over the past few months, courts have handed rare life sentences to traffickers, denied bail to another person facing charges, and ordered compensation to be paid to a victim even though her trial was still ongoing.
In a country where trafficking cases are often stalled - if they make it to court at all - some see those legal decisions as signs that judges are pushing for reform.
"The judiciary is paving the way for a better shot at justice for survivors," said Saji Philip of the anti-trafficking charity International Justice Mission.
"Recent judgments have set precedents, emphasizing the need to strengthen investigation, denying traffickers easy bail and awarding compensation to survivors," he said.
Investigations, prosecutions and convictions for human trafficking are low in India.
Less than half of the more than 8,000 human trafficking cases reported in 2016 were filed in court by the police, and the conviction rate in those that did go to trial was 28 percent, according to government data.
Campaigners said the reported cases represent only a small fraction of incidents of trafficking throughout the country.
Likewise, the recent court judgments should be kept in perspective, said Sarfaraz Ahmed Khan, author of Sex Trafficking and the Law.
"These verdicts give us confidence but they are 0.1 percent of the total cases," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
RULE OF LAW
This month, judges Ravi Krishan Kapur and Joymalya Bagchi of the Calcutta High Court, in West Bengal state, cancelled the bail of a hotel owner who said she was unaware of trafficked girls and women being sexually exploited on the premises.
In their order, the judges acknowledged that the "menace of trafficking of women and minors had assumed alarming proportions," and excoriated police for failing to take action.
"We note with grave concern the lackadaisical manner in which offences involving commercial sexual exploitation of women and children like the present one are investigated (and) prosecuted," Kapur and Bagchi wrote.
They added that police must alert anti-trafficking units within 24 hours of cases being reported.
In March, two brothel owners were jailed for life for the trafficking, rape and sexual abuse of children in Gaya in the eastern state of Bihar - a rare sentence in such cases.
In another case this month, the Calcutta High Court said it would be "gross inhumanity" to delay compensation for a trafficking survivor, and ordered state authorities to pay up within 10 days even though her trial was not over.
The court's motto now is that this "illegal business should be stopped", said Prodipto Ganguly, a public prosecutor in West Bengal, which record the most cases of human trafficking of any Indian state, according to government data.
He applauded recent "landmark" judgments, but warned that fighting trafficking cases in court remains challenging.
"The accused often get bail easily, victims are threatened and forced to change their testimonies and this makes getting a conviction difficult," Ganguly said by phone.
Khan, the author of Sex Trafficking and the Law, noted that victims who recently received justice were backed by advocacy groups.
"In all other cases, the victim is an outsider in the judicial process, unaware and often revictimised, he said. (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Jared Ferrie
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