Adventures in the sex trade
Adventures in the sex trade
Posted: August 09, 2000
By Mike Scollon and VojtEch Saman
High-profile controversy in Cheb forces Czech Republic to confront sex tourism, child prostitution
TEPLICE, NORTH BOHEMIA
Entering from Germany, the Czech Republic seems to announce itself through its roads: The irregular highway matches the economic downturn that the western edges of this country endure.
Traveling on highway E55, motorists wind through one of the Czech Republic's most scenic and hilly stretches. From it, the Bohemian Central Mountains, Ceske Stredohori, provide striking views.
Mushroom sellers along the road add local color to the mix.
But there are other ubiquitous figures along E55. They are prostitutes.
Nestled between the Cesky range and the Ore Mountains (Krusne hory) are the north Bohemian communities of Dubi and Teplice. They are anything but picturesque.
Crumbling two- and three-story buildings line the road. The only inviting structures are nightclubs, with neon red and purple lights framing windows in which prostitutes openly offer their services.
Apart from the ceaseless flow of traffic and the bordellos that operate 24 hours a day, the streets of Dubi and Teplice are ghostly.
The sight of a man with a camera driving through these vacant streets provokes a laugh from a Russian-speaking prostitute. There are many cars on the roads, but almost no one walks the streets.
Playfully, she challenges him: "Are you a sex tourist?" The man says nothing and drives away.
In common with many former Soviet bloc countries, the Czech Republic is increasingly linked to sex tourism. The issue was highlighted recently by claims that child prostitution is openly available, especially in Cheb and Teplice, both border towns.
People interested in paying for sex come to this country because Czech law does not prohibit prostitution. Individual cities can pass laws against prostitution within their jurisdiction, and this is what Cheb has done.
While Prague is known as the country's sex-for-cash capital, the border towns, rife with unemployment, have turned to the lucrative flesh trade as a survival tactic. Town locals who once thrived on the sales of ceramics and pottery have witnessed a change in habits and priorities.
But it was in Cheb, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the German border, where the latest controversy began. There, the German media alleged that young girls, even children, could easily be solicited.
On July 17, German news weekly Der Spiegel published a report alleging that police in the town turned a blind eye to child prostitution. The magazine also quoted Mayor Vaclav Jakl refuting this, saying the town has been prostitution-free since it implemented fines against clients at the beginning of 1999.
Soon afterward, German and Czech television broadcast video images taken by a German ARD television journalist, Uli Hagman, in which a Cheb-based girl - Hagman said she was 12 - described what she had offered sexually, and what German tourists did to her.
Approached on the street, Hagman, 39, concealing a video camera, then entered a flat at K nemocnici 18 where a woman told him he could "f- me, or you can f- her, or you can f- me with her," for 200 DM.
After investigating the claims and the girl, Cheb police responded to the allegations by saying the children were offering themselves as part of a ruse concocted by locals to rob foreigners, including Hagman.
Police say a gynecological visit determined that the 12-year-old girl was still a virgin, therefore not being sold for sex.
Hagman agrees that he was robbed, but insists that the robbery and the sexual invitations were separate. The problems began when he told the woman and the young girl, before any sexual acts, that he had left his cash in his car. At that point, he contends, two men entered the room, attacked him, and stole his mobile phone.
"You f-ed the child and did not pay," Hagman quotes them as saying.
He then paid 200 DM (about $97/3,600 Kc) to the attackers in order to retrieve his mobile phone. None of this was shown on the news program, Hagman said, because the networks wanted to focus on the children.
"Police are not hiding from the [reality] that there could be commercial offering of children in Cheb," police spokeswoman Radka Ruzickova said of Hagman's tale. "But we are suggesting that it is not a widespread phenomenon."
Others strenuously disagree.
"Whereas several years ago there were only isolated cases of children from ages 12 to 15 being offered [for sex], today these certainly aren't exceptions," Ludmila Irmscherova of KARO, a Czech-German prostitution watchdog group that recently spent a month studying conditions in Cheb, told the Czech news agency CTK. She said there are dozens of young prostitutes in the Cheb area.
She added: "We know that there were cases in which Germans took small children away in cars. The police saw it but did not act."
Speaking with prostitutes in Cheb appears to support Irmscherova's contentions.
"It was on television that 10- or 12-year-old girls were here somewhere by the hospital," says Iveta, a 26-year-old Roma prostitute with long, dark hair and tattoos, who is wearing a white tank top. Her time has been purchased - 50 DM for 30 minutes of conversation.
"There are a lot of them [underage prostitutes]," she adds, "but they are probably at home."
Iveta's observations end abruptly, and violently.
As she is answering a question about her pimp, a car appears and forces the reporters' vehicle off the road. In seconds, Iveta is pulled out of the car by her hair, kicked, and forced into the second car.
Lax law enforcement
With a keen eye for spotting prowling German autos, pimps and their prostitutes rule these roads. Czech traffic police have no authority to deal with prostitution.
"No Czechs," one prostitute says tersely.
"Every day we bring in 30 to 40 women, depending on the weather," said police spokeswoman Ruzickova, adding that the city has no real means to stop the business.
"[There is] no law we can use to fight prostitution, only this [fine] regulation," Ruzickova says of the misdemeanor penalty that can be levied against tourists caught soliciting.
While Cheb is the only Czech city to threaten even minor sanctions, local newspapers reported that only six German tourists have been fined since the system was implemented in January 1999.
Germany is also trying to inform its citizens of the consequences of sex with minors by handing out educational pamphlets at border crossings. They outline the possibility of prosecution upon their return home.
Meanwhile, in Cheb, residents are mindful of the scrutiny that reports have brought them.
"The German journalists are not being fair," said a hotel manager, who declined to give her name. "It is not the children that are the pedophiles, it is the Germans."
Hagman is not pleased with the results of his reporting, which instead of exposing the predilections of sex tourists - his intent - has deepened disagreements between Czech and German sides.
"It is a sad story, because it is being politicized," Hagman said.
Concludes KARO's Irmscherova, with little promise, in her words to CTK: "Child prostitution is not a phenomenon only in Cheb, there is also the question of Teplice and other areas near the border with Germany. It is a serious problem that must be solved."
- Jakub Sverak contributed to this report.
Mike Scollon and Vojtech Saman
may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Conversation with Iveta, 26, who accepted 50 German marks ($23/900 Kc) to speak briefly with reporters from The Prague Post:
By Mike Scollon and VojtEch Saman