BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Dozens of vulnerable men and boys were kidnapped, chained, whipped, fed scraps and forced to work or fight each other for entertainment over an eight-year period in rural southern Romania, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Three men and two boys aged between 10 and 12 were found chained up and were rescued by police Wednesday in the mountain town of Berevoiesti during searches at the homes of suspects — members of an extended Roma family. Organized-crime prosecutors said the investigation involves some 90 suspects who they say exploited around 65 people with physical and mental disabilities or who were very poor, making them log wood, beg or look after animals.
Some 160 police and prosecutors took part in the raid Wednesday on the town, some 150 kilometers (95 miles) northwest of Bucharest.
Berevoiesti mayor Florin Bogdan told Digi24 television he had alerted authorities about suspicions of slavery in the town last year. Media reported investigators have been monitoring suspects for months and took action when the majority of suspects were at home.
A prosecutors' statement said some victims were snatched from railway and bus stations, outside churches or even from their own homes and transported to private homes by members of the group. Some of them performed domestic chores while others were made to transport and sell wood that was the product of illegal logging.
It said the captives were sometimes held in chains, whipped, beaten and threatened, refused food or made to eat off the ground, and coerced into fighting each other for entertainment. They were locked up overnight to prevent them escaping. Some were stripped naked and doused with hot or cold water. There are suspicions some were raped or sexually abused.
One youngster told Digi24 he had had received just 10 lei ($4.20) a week for cleaning horses and other work.
Valentin Preoteasa, chief prosecutor at the Pitesti office, called the case unprecedented. "It is shocking to hear this in the 21st century," he told The Associated Press by telephone, adding he had immediately poured his office's resources into the probe. "All five prosecutors in the Pitesti office are working on the case," together with police officers, he said.
Preoteasa said the victims have been housed in centers and given food, showers and beds. He could not say how many were children.
Spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office Mihaela Porime said some of the youngsters had their identity papers and birth certificates confiscated.
Preoteasa said investigators have located about 30 suspects, including women, and are in the process of questioning them. Police carrying out the searches confiscated 228,000 lei ($56,300), about one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of gold, nine chainsaws and three trucks that they said were used in the criminal activity.
They risk up to 20 years in prison.