A 27-year-old Vancouver man is facing multiple charges of trafficking in underage teenagers he allegedly forced into the sex trade.
Sgt. Richard Akin of the Vancouver Police Department's vice unit said Friday that the charges, coming at the end of a three-month investigation known as Project Sabr, are the first of their kind in the force's history.
Four Lower Mainland girls between the ages of 14 and 17 have been taken into care in connection with the case.
"They've shown a lot of courage talking to us," Sgt. Akin said. "We've had to gain their trust. While they might have been involved in sex work activity, they are victims."
Experts in the field of human trafficking praised the VPD for Project Sabr. Despite their belief that the trafficking of juveniles and forcing them into prostitution is widespread, they noted that few charges of this nature are ever laid in Canada.
"This is a real wake-up call that what is often identified by police as prostitution cases involve individuals who use force, fraud or coercion to extract profits from these vulnerable individuals," said Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of B.C. and author of a book on human trafficking, Invisible Chain.
These are B.C.'s first sex-trafficking charges involving minors, he said. "This is a significant case, because of the number of victims, allegedly controlled by a single trafficker. I applaud the VPD for pursuing this."
Rosalind Currie, director of the province's Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons, said the extent of human trafficking for sexual purposes can't be judged by the meagre number of convictions.
"There is a lot of fear among trafficked persons to come forward. It's a very hidden crime," said Ms. Currie. "So the charges [Friday]are really a positive sign. They are going to raise awareness of the prevalence of this situation."
In all, 18 charges have been laid against Reza Moazami, including four counts of trafficking in persons under the age of 18 and four counts of living off the avails of a juvenile, using force or the threat of violence.
Those charges, upon conviction, now carry a mandatory sentence of at least five years, since a private member's bill spearheaded by Conservative MP Joyce Smith became part of Canada's Criminal Code last year.
Before then, Prof. Perrin, who first proposed the measure, said sentences were abysmal. "Police said victims were increasingly loathe to come forward when punishment was so lax."
He added that it was unfortunate, however, that there are no charges against any of the "thousands of men who paid to abuse these individuals. They need to be held accountable, as well."
Police chose to call their investigation Project Sabr, because 'sabr,' according to Sgt. Akin, is the Farsi word for "probing a wound [or]examining a business to the bottom."
"That defines exactly what we did. It couldn't be more apt in terms of what we wanted to achieve."
A publication ban prevents police revealing more information about the victims and further details of the case.
Mr. Moazami was taken into custody earlier this month. He is also charged with four counts of living off the avails of a juvenile, four counts of sexual exploitation, and two counts of sexual interference.
Two minors were found at the South Vancouver residence where the accused was arrested, police said.