The government maintained law enforcement efforts. Articles 165 and 206 of the criminal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The law prescribed penalties of six to 12 years’ imprisonment for trafficking offenses involving an adult victim and 10 to 12 years’ imprisonment for those involving a child victim. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as rape. Article 168 of the criminal code also criminalized forced labor and imposed penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment.
The pandemic severely impeded anti-trafficking efforts, challenging police, prosecutors, judges, government coordinating bodies, social workers, and civil society organizations. The government implemented movement-restriction lockdowns and other social distancing measures that limited the activity of all elements of law enforcement. At various points throughout the year, state employees, including police and prosecutors, worked remotely or on limited schedules. In March 2020, the government closed courts and did not reopen them until June 2020; while closed, courts did not have the capacity to conduct trials or hearings online, delaying all proceedings. When trials resumed, the need to maintain social distancing reduced the caseload of many courts, creating a significant backlog. According to prosecutors, the closure of courts affected negatively and significantly the progress of all criminal cases, including trafficking cases. Consequently, in 2020, authorities conducted 65 investigations (35 sex trafficking, 30 labor trafficking), compared with 153 in 2019 and 223 in 2018. The government initiated 96 prosecutions (60 sex trafficking, 36 labor trafficking), a slight increase from 90 in 2019 and 83 in 2018. Courts convicted 32 traffickers (22 sex trafficking, 10 labor trafficking), compared with 63 in 2019 and 59 in 2018. The majority of convicted traffickers received prison sentences ranging from seven years to 16 years. Additionally, a district court convicted one trafficker for knowingly patronizing or soliciting a trafficking victim for commercial sex acts and issued a suspended sentence. During the reporting period, authorities cooperated with foreign counterparts on trafficking investigations. In one case, Moldovan, Romanian, and French authorities set up a joint investigation team to pursue a labor trafficking case involving Moldovan nationals in France. Authorities arrested 38 traffickers (seven in Moldova); seized 19 vehicles, weapons, phones, and approximately €100,000 ($122,700) in cash; and froze 11 bank accounts. The investigation began in 2018 when French authorities intercepted a van transporting Moldovan migrants, who were carrying counterfeit Romanian documents. The transnational trafficking ring, set up by a Romanian national living in France, smuggled at least 40 Moldovan citizens to France to exploit them in the construction sector. The illegal profits from the trafficking scheme totaled nearly €14 million ($17.18 million).
Perennial problems, including high turnover within the police and prosecutor’s office, corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary, and lengthy trials, undermined government efforts. In 2020, the government appointed a new commander who had no background in trafficking investigations to the Center for Combating Trafficking in Persons (CCTIP), the lead anti-trafficking investigative and police agency, and reduced the role of the deputy commander. Furthermore, CCTIP and the Organized Crime Prosecution Office (PCCOCS) continued to suffer from high turnover of experienced staff, limiting the agencies’ ability to investigate complex cases, including transnational criminal organizations or complicit government employees. In 2020, a labor trafficking case involving a border police officer from the previous reporting period remained under investigation. Apart from that case and despite a long history of alleged complicity by government employees, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes. Furthermore, corruption in the judicial system remained an acute impediment to bringing traffickers to justice with prosecutors, members of the judiciary, and members of law enforcement implicated in corrupt practices. Courts frequently reversed convictions on appeal, sometimes without explanation or on weak grounds. Judges tended to re-qualify cases from trafficking crimes to crimes with lesser penalties, such as pimping, and issue varying sentences to different traffickers for the same crimes committed under the same circumstances. Observers noted prosecutors sent trafficking cases to court without sufficient evidence collection and withheld case files from lawyers representing victims. Moreover, lengthy trials impeded justice and often led to the acquittal of traffickers. Since final verdicts could take years, and by law, authorities could only detain suspects for 12 months, authorities released suspected traffickers before trials concluded, enabling them to flee the country or retaliate against witnesses.
Prosecutors at every level, from the PGO to regional territorial prosecution offices, were responsible for prosecuting trafficking crimes. The PGO maintained a unit with specialized prosecutors, who coordinated anti-trafficking prosecution policies and supervised the work of regional territorial prosecutors when working on trafficking cases. The PGO expanded its mandate to investigate child sexual exploitation cases involving information and communication technologies and approved guidelines for identifying, investigating, and prosecuting such cases. Additionally, the PGO worked with an international organization to develop a methodology for recovering criminal assets and best practices in conducting parallel financial investigations. In 2020, prosecutors seized approximately 21 million Moldovan lei ($1.23 million) in property, including money, real estate, and movable assets, from traffickers, a significant increase from 1.55 million lei ($90,750) in 2019. PCCOCS also had a specialized unit for prosecuting trafficking cases initiated by CCTIP as well as cases involving criminal organizations. However, prosecutors assigned to PCCOCS lacked experience handling trafficking cases, and PCCOCS did not require them to meet any specific qualifications for investigating and prosecuting trafficking crimes. The Chisinau Prosecutor’s Office maintained an Anti-Trafficking Bureau and conducted the prosecution of trafficking cases from Chisinau municipality; at the district level, specialized prosecutors conducted the prosecution of trafficking cases. Within the judiciary, there were specialized judges trained specifically to handle trafficking cases. In 2020, the Superior Counsel of Magistrates extended the mandates of trafficking-specialized judges from one year to five years, increasing these judges’ experience and understanding of trafficking and creating a judicial environment more sensitive to the needs of victims. In 2020, the government provided more than 354 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges; and judiciary staff specialized training on investigating, prosecuting, and trying trafficking cases. An additional 225 specialists from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Social Protection and other state agencies received training on identifying and assisting victims of trafficking. The National Institute of Justice partnered with an NGO to organize two training courses on identifying, investigating, and prosecuting crimes committed against children using information technology, attended by 28 judges and prosecutors and 36 judicial clerks and prosecutors’ assistants. Overall, the government’s ability to fund key law enforcement and social protection institutes remained limited. As a result, the government relied heavily on donor funding to train police, border guards, prosecutors, and judges.