Authorities in Romania have formally detained 38 people suspected of taking dozens of vulnerable men and boys as slaves, kidnapping them and chaining them, and forcing them to work or fight each other for entertainment.
Organized crime prosecutors said Thursday suspects were questioned through the night after a raid Wednesday in a rural mountain town on the homes of suspects — members of an extended Roma family.
The investigation involves some 90 suspects who authorities say exploited around 65 people with physical and mental disabilities or who were very poor, making them chop wood, beg or look after animals.
In the dusty village of Gamacesti, a community of single-story houses, there was uproar Thursday among Roma residents who were angry about the raid, which they called heavy-handed, and the accusations of slavery. Some accused police of beating residents.
These residents claimed the alleged victims were homeless people who had been given food and shelter in the poor village of 1,000 where most people live from farming, picking raspberries, blackcurrants and corn.
Ciprian Necula, a Roma official in the Ministry of European Funds, said “regrettable situations” should not “be used to blame an entire category of citizens.” He noted that Roma, who face widespread prejudice, had been slaves in Romania 160 years ago.
In Gamacesti, horses loaded with cut grass and logs trundled along the dirt streets Thursday. Chickens pecked in the yard behind rickety wooden fences.
One woman, who declined to give her name, said: “They were fed, they had money and they did not want to leave.”
But the mayor of the town of Berevoesti, which has administrative oversight for local villages including Gamacesti, said he was shocked.
“It was terrifying for me,” said Florin Bogdan Proca. “I didn’t know there were such heartless people in 2016… I didn’t know there could be slavery in 2016, people kept by force, maltreated.”
He said he had alerted authorities about suspicions of slavery last year.
Local child protection spokeswoman Iuliana Matei said Thursday that two victims and 19 children of suspects have been placed in care centers.