A raid conducted by the Social Security cell (SSC) of the Pune City Police’s Crime Branch on a five-star hotel about a year ago, and subsequent investigation in the case, has unearthed a nationwide prostitution racket involving Indian and foreign women, agents with international connections and customers ‘lured’ via digital avenues. As many as 14 persons have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the racket and police have identified 10 more suspects, including agents who have links with international racketeers. This is the second case pertaining to a prostitution racket in which Pune City Police have invoked the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA).
The raid and the investigation
Acting on information by a ‘decoy’ customer, a SSC team raided a five-star hotel on the Pune-Ahmednagar Road on September 18 last year and busted a prostitution racket. Police rescued three women from the spot, including two foreign nationals, one from Russia and another from Uzbekistan, while the third woman belonged to Delhi. An offence in this case was lodged at the Yerwada police station under sections 370 and 370a of Indian Penal code, and under sections of the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act (PITA).
Initially, police arrested eight persons in the case — Pratap Antaryami Sahu (26), Lipun Antaryami Sahu (23), Amarendra Ishwarchandra Sahu (28), Ajay Lokbahadur Giri (25), Binku Tankbahadur Chhetri (26), Shanti Lakshman Giri (25), Ramesh Rudrabahadur Giri (30), and Baburam Bhimbahadur Giri (19).
Three months after the raid, in December, police invoked MCOCA against the accused, claiming that the racketeers had operated in an organised manner and lured women from different parts of country, and abroad, to draw them into the racket. Further investigation led to the arrest of four more suspects — Sagar alias Shivbahadur Singh (26), Yuvraj Thapa alias Uma Reshmi (27), Rahul Bhattacharya (34), and Krushna Singh Surendra Singh (44).
Targeting the masterminds of the prostitution racket, the Crime Branch continued to dig deeper and on September 14, nearly nine months after the earlier arrests, investigators arrested an alleged top racketeer, identified as Iqbalsingh Mahindrapal alias Toni (42).
Toni, who hailed from Punjab, was a resident of Mira Road, Thane.
Twelve days later, on September 26, police arrested one more alleged agent, identified as Kapil Shrimantrao Patil alias Vijay Singh (27), a resident of Borivali in Mumbai and a native of Karnataka.
All of the accused have denied the charges and some of them have moved the Bombay High Court, seeking quashing of the FIR in the case.
Crime Branch sleuths, however, said Toni had been involved in the prostitution racket for almost 20 years, while Singh had been operating the racket from Mumbai for the last five years.
As they investigated how Toni allegedly joined the racket two decades ago, police officials found that he used to work as a waiter, and had even lived in Dubai for a brief period. After his Dubai stint, Toni came back to Mumbai and allegedly got involved in a prostitution racket in Mumbai’s red light area. Gradually, he cultivated his contacts with agents across the country, in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Pune, as well as with those from foreign countries, said police.
It was Toni who had brought the two women from Uzbekistan and Russia to the five-star hotel in Pune last year, said police. While both women had come to India with tourist visas, they were allegedly part of the prostitution racket. After being rescued by the SSC team from the hotel last year, they were sent to a rescue home and later, after completing the necessary legal formalities, they were deported and blacklisted.
The interrogation of Toni and Vijay Singh has revealed more information about racketeers from Delhi and other parts of India, who were involved in bringing foreign women to India for the racket, said police.
The modus operandi: Use of websites, social media
The sex racketeers allegedly lured customers via websites, social media platforms and online escort service options, said Assistant Commissioner of Police Bhanupratap Barge.
The investigation also revealed that some of the agents were women from foreign countries, married to Indian men, who had been living in Delhi on long-term visas. They brought women from foreign countries to India on tourist visas that were valid for three months, who were then supplied to customers across India, said police. These women went back to their countries after their visas expired, and tried to come back again after procuring new visas. In some cases, however, they continued to stay after their visas expired.
In March this year, police found two women from Uzbekistan involved in a prostitution racket at a hotel in Kalyani Nagar, one of whom had been overstaying in India for about a year after the expiry of her tourist visa.
The racket also included several Indian women, who were supplied to customers across India through agents, said police.
“Till now, at least 10 of the arrested accused have been found to have a criminal history. There is evidence to show that these sex racketeers worked in an organised manner and earned money from it through illegal means. We are looking for the other accused… ,” said Senior Police Inspector Manisha Zende, who is heading the investigation.
The first time MCOCA was invoked in a sex racket case
In October 2016, the Pune City Police had invoked MCOCA against alleged sex racketeer Jayshree alias Kalyani Umesh Deshpande (46) and her aide Ravi alias Pradeep Ramhari Gawli (29). Kalyani was arrested from Pashan area on August 5, 2016, in connection with a prostitution racket registered under PITA at the Kothrud police station. Kalyani was also allegedly involved in about 25 crimes in Pune and Mumbai, and had been on the police’s radar since 1998.
Kalyani, who allegedly ran an escort agency from her bungalow, had been booked under MCOCA even in the past, after her name cropped up in connection to a murder case at Haveli police station. However, the MCOCA charges were dismissed later.
In 2016, police booked her under MCOCA once again for allegedly operating a sex racket, the first time the stringent charge was invoked in a sex racket case in Pune.