By Chris Summers
Nine people from Thailand have been jailed for up to two-and-a-half-years for their part in exploiting women who were advertised in "online brothels". They are thought to have made millions of pounds from women trafficked from Asia to the UK for use in the sex trade.
More than 60 women were advertised on the website
Every night thousands of men trawl websites in the UK advertising women offering sex for sale.
Many of them are run by prostitutes, or escorts as they often like to describe themselves, who are essentially self-employed entrepreneurs using the internet to cut out the pimps.
But some are advertising women who have been trafficked into the country and are being exploited for profit.
Oriental Gems was one such "online brothel", which as its name suggested, specialised in girls from the South East Asia.
A gallery on the site showed photographs of more than 60 naked and semi-naked women. Many of them were effectively commodities who had been traded and invested in by "bondholders".
One of the women - advertised on the website as "Helen" - had been "bought" from her traffickers by a syndicate of two women and a man for £11,000 and then told she would have to pay her "bondholders" £30,000 to win her own freedom.
Brian O'Neill, prosecuting, said she effectively had to sleep with 300 men, at £100 a time, to buy herself out of a modern-day form of slavery.
Earlier this year the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, announced plans to introduce legislation to outlaw paying for sex with someone "controlled for another person's gain".
It is thought this legislation could be included in next month's Queen's Speech.
Oriental Gems was run by brothers Pongpoj and Bordee Pitayatanakul
If it becomes law it would mean "punters" would have a legal obligation to ensure women they pay have not been trafficked.
Scotland Yard launched Operation Gib in December last year after receiving intelligence that women had been trafficked into the UK and housed in 20 brothels in London.
It followed a smaller scale investigation by Norfolk Police, who found Thai women being traded in brothels in Norwich.
Raids in April
By April this year the police had enough evidence and launched a series of late-night raids, which ended in a number of arrests.
Ten people, all from Thailand, were eventually charged with conspiracy to traffic women within the UK for the purpose of sexual exploitation; conspiracy to control prostitution for gain or money laundering.
But the prosecution later dropped the trafficking charges and earlier this week all 10 pleaded guilty to prostitution and money laundering offences.
Southwark Crown Court heard that Oriental Gems was run by Pongpoj Pitayatanakul, 31, his brother Bordee, 33, and Pongpoj's girlfriend Monthira Duangthip, 35, all from Guildford, Surrey.
They employed four men as drivers and assistants: Panya Peakaew, 26, from Paddington, west London, Nopharat Charoenying, 29, and Graipich Vudto, 28, from Bayswater, central London, and Thatri Pornpaditkong, 27, from central London.
The "bondholders", who effectively owned several of the women and expected them to pay off their £30,000 debt, were two women, Jirapha Sriwicha, 40, of Hendon, north London and Sutima Khongpon, 55, and Phanusak Kaewbenjarkarn, 32, both from Streatham, south London.
Eight of the 10 defendants were illegal immigrants or had overstayed their visas. Pongpoj Pitayatanakul and Graipich Vudto had qualified for British passports by virtue of marriages to UK citizens.
Sutima Khongpon was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, Phanusak Kaewbenjarkarn and Jiripha Sriwicha were each sentenced to two years, Pongpoj Pitayayanakul was sentenced to 18 months, Bordee Pitayayanakul to 15 months, Monthira Duangthip to 12 months in prison, Panya Peakaew, Noppharat Charoenying and Graipich Vudto were all sentenced to 28 days in prison, and Thatri Pornpaditkong was given a community service order.
Sentencing the 10, Christopher Hardy said Oriental Gems "was exploitation on a grand scale".
"It can't be right in this day and age that young women coming to this country should be sold off effectively as slaves to work for free until their debts are expunged," the judge added.
After the raids the trafficked women were taken to a specialist centre, equipped with interpreters, health workers and officers trained in sexual offences interview techniques.
Nine of them, including "Helen", later gave statements to police. Most of them have since been sent back to Thailand.
Suttima Khongpon and Jiripha Sriwicha hoped to make a profit after buying one of the women
"Helen" had been bought out of her slavery by a client, who had paid off the remaining £20,000 of her debt to her "owners".
Those convicted this week will face confiscation hearings and eight of them will be deported back to Thailand.
Last week another gang were jailed for up to 14 years for trafficking women around the UK and using them for prostitution.
That gang, led by Ali Arslan, a 43-year-old Turk, peddled dozens of women, the youngest a 16-year-old virgin from Slovakia.
Detective Superintendent Dave Eyles, from Scotland Yard's Clubs and Vice Unit, said:
"Those who have been identified as key players in Operation Gib were undoubtedly making hundreds of thousands of pounds, all generated through the exploitation and unhappiness of the women who were the victims in all this."
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The UK has a comprehensive victim-centred strategy in place to tackle human trafficking.
"In January we launched a short-term review to explore what more we can do to tackle the demand for prostitution.
"We have also invested £5.8m in the Poppy Project over the last six years to provide high-level specialist support for victims trafficked into sexual exploitation.
This includes safe accommodation; advocacy; access to counselling; access to legal advice; interpretative services. Victims are provided with support for an initial thirty-day period whilst they consider their options."