Tens of thousands took to the streets of Bucharest despite PM’s resignation over the nightclub fire that killed 32.
Romanian police have detained 38 people suspected of holding dozens of vulnerable young men and boys like slaves for years, chaining them up and forcing them to do various types of work, or fight each other for entertainment.
The arrests took place on Thursday following large-scale police raids the day before in Berevoesti, 170km north of the capital, Bucharest. Five people, including two boys aged 10 and 12, were freed after the raids.
The captives were “attached with chains and straps … beaten [and] humiliated”, starved of food and fed on scraps, prosecutors from the Directorate for Investigating Organised Crime and Terrorism, (DIICOT) said.
They were “left fully naked, cold and hot water being thrown alternatively on them. Their hands and feet were tied and they were told to eat off the ground or to fight each other to amuse the suspects,” they said.
Since 2008, about 40 victims were “captured in public places, near churches or train stations, or at their homes” and forced to do household chores, look after animals, beg in the streets, and do illegal logging, prosecutors said.
Some of the victims are believed to have suffered sexual abuse as well, prosecutors said.
“Their treatment was terrible,” said DIICOT spokeswoman Mihaela Porime.
Ninety people from Gamacesti, a Roma district within the municipality of Berevoesti, in the Arges region, were initially thought to have been involved.
Those freed on Wednesday “had visible traces of open wounds all over their bodies, particularly their scalps. They appeared physically and psychologically traumatised,” Adrian Macovei, from the Romanian child protection agency, told local media.
But local residents told journalists on Thursday that they did not believe the claims, saying that the boys had been homeless orphans and that they were not mistreated.
“They were fed, they had money and they did not want to leave,” a woman, who declined to give her name, told The Associated Press news agency in Gamacesti.
“These people, if they came to work in our home, we’d give them food, we gave them shelter, we didn’t do anything bad to them,” another woman, who also refused to give her name, told the AFP news agency.
“They were unhappy, with no mother or father. We felt sorry for them. They were like our children,” she added.
But Florin Proca, the mayor of the town on Berevoesti, which has administrative oversight for local villages including Gamacesti, said he was “stunned”.
“I couldn’t imagine that in 2016 such soulless people could exist. I have seen shocking photos of the slaves, people held against their will, abused,” he said.
Local child protection spokeswoman Iuliana Matei said that two victims and 19 children of suspects had been placed in care centres.