The government maintained mixed law enforcement efforts to address human trafficking—while it convicted more traffickers, it issued suspended sentences to some of those convicted, initiated significantly fewer prosecutions, and did not take sufficient action to investigate allegations of official complicity in trafficking. Section 360(C) of the penal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of two to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine, which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious offenses, such as rape. The government also frequently used Section 360(A), a procurement statute that criminalized obtaining a person to become a prostitute, with or without the consent of the person, to prosecute sex trafficking cases. Procurement crimes carried lesser penalties of two to 10 years’ imprisonment and fines, and prosecutors often brought these cases before magistrate judges who generally only had the authority to issue sentences of up to two years’ imprisonment.
During the reporting period, the Criminal Investigation Department’s (CID) anti-trafficking unit and police initiated 14 trafficking investigations—three for sex trafficking and 11 for forced labor—similar to 15 investigations in the previous reporting period. All investigations remained ongoing at the close of the reporting period. The government initiated 10 prosecutions, including seven under the procurement statute, Section 360(A), and three under the trafficking statute, Section 360(C). This is a decrease from 28 prosecutions initiated in the previous reporting period and 35 initiated in 2016. Fifteen cases under Section 360(C) initiated in previous reporting periods remained pending in the high courts; an additional 38 cases under Sections 360(A) and 360 (C) initiated in previous reporting periods remained pending trial. For the first time in five years, the government secured a conviction under Section 360(C). However, the judge suspended the sentences of imprisonment for all three convicted traffickers. He also ordered the defendants to pay 50,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR) ($274) in compensation to the victim and ordered one of the defendants to pay a 10,000 LKR ($55) fine. Courts convicted five persons under the procurement statute, compared with three persons convicted under the procurement statute in the previous reporting period. The court sentenced three persons to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 LKR ($55) each, and sentenced the other two persons to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of LKR 20,000 LKR ($110) each. In addition, the court ordered 500,000 LKR ($2,740) in compensation to the victim. This was a positive change from the previous reporting period, when courts suspended two of the three sentences of imprisonment for persons convicted under Section 360(A). Lack of thorough human trafficking investigations for elements of force, fraud, or coercion, difficulty securing evidence from victims, and judges’ lack of understanding of the severity of the crime contributed to both the government’s general reliance on procurement charges and the lenient sentences applied under Section 360(C). Prosecutors could pursue procurement cases without the cooperation of the victim.
In November 2017, the government amended the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act to authorize Sri Lankan diplomatic missions to record evidence and take statements from a victim or witness outside Sri Lanka. Of the 14 trafficking investigations initiated during the reporting period, the anti-trafficking unit of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) referred seven of the cases and MFA referred one—all transnational forced labor cases—to CID’s anti-trafficking unit, a decrease from 12 referrals from SLBFE and 19 referrals from MFA in the previous reporting period. Civil society organizations reported referring cases of suspected trafficking to SLBFE, including cases of nonpayment of wages and contract fraud; SLBFE reportedly mediated some of these cases in lieu of criminal investigation. Sri Lankan diplomatic missions did not refer any witness and victim affidavits from abroad to CID for investigation, compared to referring 29 affidavits in the previous reporting period. The government allocated 5.7 million LKR ($31,220) to the SLBFE’s anti-trafficking unit; it had not previously reported the unit’s budget. With donor funding and technical assistance, many government entities continued to conduct anti-trafficking training. For example, police trained more than 260 officers on the identification and interviewing of trafficking victims, and the police college provided the same training to 90 newly recruited immigration and emigration officers. The Department of Probation and Child Care Services further trained 126 police officers from the women and children’s units on trafficking trends, applicable legal provisions, and the role of police in trafficking cases. With an international organization, the Attorney General’s Office finalized a handbook on prosecution of trafficking cases and began training state prosecutors.
The government did not report any new investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking offenses; however, corruption and alleged official complicity in trafficking remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year. Some local government and security sector officials forced women who asked for information about their missing husbands, or widows who attempted to claim government benefits from their deceased husbands’ military service, to perform commercial sex acts in exchange for information and/or government benefits. The government did not report efforts to investigate these allegations. The former head of the government’s National Child Protection Agency (NCPA) uncovered allegations that one state-run orphanage, in collaboration with tuk-tuk drivers, used children from the orphanage in a child sex trafficking ring. NCPA opened an investigation, but local police and prosecutors closed the investigation without explanation, and the government did not extend the tenure of the NCPA director who made the allegations. The government did not report any efforts to further investigate the allegations, the orphanage staff, or close the orphanage. Media reported some “massage parlors” that function as brothels used children in sex trafficking and bribed police officers to avoid raids. Some sub-agents reportedly worked with officials to procure forged or modified documents, or genuine documents with falsified data, to facilitate travel abroad. In 2016, the Ministry of Foreign Employment (MFE) referred to the police six cases of officials allegedly creating fraudulent documents. One case ended in conviction the previous reporting period, and both criminal and administrative investigations were ongoing in the remaining five cases at the close of the reporting period.