WASHINGTON, DC -- Five Ukrainians were charged with running a human trafficking ring that forced migrants to work for little or no pay cleaning US chain stores such as Target and Walmart, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday.
The victims, mainly young Ukrainians, were subjected to rape and other physical violence, slave-like conditions, debt bondage and extortion of relatives in Ukraine -- abuse that added up to a "nightmare" of human deprivation, the US Justice Department said.
The charges were released just weeks after the United States for the first time included itself in its annual State Department report on global human trafficking, ranking itself in the "top tier" of compliance with standards to protect against such trafficking.
The indictment unsealed in the northeastern city of Philadelphia charged brothers Omelyan Botsvynyuk, Stepan Botsvynyuk, Mykhaylo Botsvynyuk, Dmytro Botsvynyuk, and Yaroslav Botsvynyuk, alias Yaroslav Churuk, with extortion and conspiracy to violate racketeering laws, the Justice Department said.
If convicted of all charges, the defendants face sentences ranging from 20 years in prison and a $250,000 dollar fine to life in prison and a $750,000 fine.
Four of the five suspects were arrested Wednesday. Dmytro Botsvynyuk was said to be in Ukraine, which has not entered into an extradition treaty with the United States, the statement said.
They allegedly conspired "to engage in a pattern of racketeering activity, from the fall of 2000 through the spring of 2007, by operating a human trafficking organization that smuggled young Ukrainian migrants into the United States and forced them to work for the brothers with little or no pay."
The five allegedly told victims they would earn $500 dollars a month with free room and board by working for their organization.
But "they smuggled the workers into the United States and put them to work as cleaning crews in retail stores, private homes and office buildings without paying them," the department said, citing Target and Walmart -- the world's largest retailer -- as examples.
The workers "lived with up to five people in one room, slept on dirty mattresses on the floor, and were rarely, if ever, paid," it said.
"They were told that they had to continue working until their debts, ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 dollars, were paid."
One woman who worked for the brothers was "brutally raped on several occasions," the statement said.
Omelyan Botsvynyuk once "threatened to place a worker's then nine-year-old daughter into prostitution to pay off the family debt,'" the department statement added.
After some managed to escape, Omelyan Botsvynyuk "resorted to extorting the workers' families in Ukraine, threatening them with harm if the workers did not return to work or pay their debts," it said.
"They used physical force, threats of force, sexual assault and debt bondage to keep the victims in involuntary servitude," the statement noted.
US Attorney Zane Memeger said "the victims in this case entered this country with dreams of great opportunity only to find themselves living a nightmare.
"They trusted this band of brothers, they performed the work they were told only to be rewarded with false promises, threats of brutality, and deprivation of their basic human needs. No one trying to immigrate to this country should have to endure such mistreatment."
The State Department says human trafficking is among the most profitable criminal industries in the world, along with illegal drugs and weapons.
In a State Department report on world trafficking earlier this month, the United States listed itself as compliant with minimum standards to protect against the crime.
The report did however acknowledge that the United States is "a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, and forced prostitution."
North Korea, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea remained at the bottom level of countries on the list that do not even meet the minimum standards on human trafficking.