Three women admit charges over Belfast brothel

Five people were arrested in Northern Ireland and three in the Republic of Ireland during the searches

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Three Polish women have been given suspended prison sentences at Belfast Magistrates Court for brothel keeping and having criminal property.

They were arrested at a brothel in Belfast's Alfred Street on Tuesday as part of a cross-border police operation against prostitution.

Five people were arrested in Northern Ireland and three in the Republic of Ireland during a series of searches.

Three suspected victims of human trafficking were rescued.

In the dock on Wednesday were 23-year-old Milena Halina Tarnowska, Sandra Polewska, 24, and 27-year-old Marta Kozakowska, all with an address in Alfred Street in Belfast city centre.

A prosecution lawyer said there was no allegation of human trafficking and no other people were involved in running the brothel apart from the accused.

The women pleaded guilty to the charges.

Kozakowska admitted a third offence of obstructing police by swallowing a mobile phone SIM card when police entered their apartment.

The district judge imposed a two-month prison sentence on each defendant but suspended it for 18 months.

Defence lawyers said all three women were planning to leave Northern Ireland.

"It would be accepted by the prosecution that this was a very simple, unsophisticated set-up involving these three ladies," one of them told the court.

"Nobody else received any money from the girls as a result of their activities. There is no suggestion that anybody is in charge."

The two other women arrested in Northern Ireland during the searches - Operation Quest - have been released on bail pending further enquiries.

The PSNI said they believe 10 out of 20 addresses they searched across Northern Ireland were being used as brothels.

A large amount of documents, cash, mobile phones and computers were seized by the PSNI and gardai.

The operation on Tuesday involved 170 police officers across Northern Ireland and more than 200 gardai, and had been planned for several weeks.

It is believed 114 properties were searched in the Republic.

Paul Reynolds, RTE crime correspondent

Prostitution is organised on a cross-border basis.

It works on the internet - at any given time in the Republic there are around 700 women advertised on websites that go under the guise of escort or companionship websites, that kind of thing.

Really what they're doing is advertising the services of sex workers.

People just ring up, they're given a number, they ring another number, then they go to an apartment, a house, a non descript flat in any part of the country north and south.

What's happening is these are being run by people who are also involved in money laundering, people trafficking - serious organised crime.

There's no doubt it's a growing problem, it's a multi-million euro exercise.

PSNI Detective Superintendent Philip Marshall said this was only the start of the operation.

"The operation is continuing and there is the potential for more searches and more arrests in the days ahead," he said.

"This operation is focused on gathering information and intelligence and evidence on the extent of the problem of organised prostitution in Ireland.

"We then have an assessment and then we will target in the future what we suspect is a number of crime gangs who were involved in this particular crime type."

Det Supt Marshall said millions of pounds were being spent in the island of Ireland every year purchasing sexual services.

"There is a demand for those sexual services and organised criminals are feeding that demand.

"They are bringing vulnerable men and women into both parts of Ireland for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

"It is large-scale, it is organised and there are multi-million pound criminal profits being made.

Trafficking

Detectives received support from women's help organisations who deal with rescued victims of trafficking, and representatives from the Garda were in the Belfast command room.

The three suspected victims were taken to police stations to be interviewed by specially-trained officers, and they will be offered counselling.

The officer leading the PSNI's side of Operation Quest said the searches were carried out across all counties in Northern Ireland and policing regions in the Irish Republic.

The investigation is being assisted by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, Europol and the UK Border Agency.

Suspected brothel inside an apartment complex in Belfast city centre A suspected brothel was found in a Belfast city centre apartment

In February, justice minister David Ford said the PSNI had identified 26 potential victims in Northern Ireland since April 2011.

They came from countries including Ghana, Zimbabwe, China and Slovakia.

The Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities has claimed that Northern Ireland has the fastest growing sex industry in any part of the UK.

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