The arrest of American billionaire Jeffrey Epstein on charges of sex trafficking on last Saturday has roiled the US, as the handling of the case has left many wondering why the tycoon was not treated with the full force of the law when police first investigated him over a decade ago.
Apart from what is seen as an example of plutocratic misuse of power, the fact that several of Epstein’s victims were minors, some as young as 14, has exacerbated public anger. Over the weekend, hundreds of nude and semi-nude photos of girls were confiscated by investigators from the Manhattan home of the 66-year-old business figure.
Epstein, a successful hedge fund manager, owns a private collection of mansions across the US, artefacts, and a private island in the US Virgin Islands. His close circle is known to have included the British royal Prince Andrew, and Epstein has also hosted former President Bill Clinton and Donald Trump (before taking office). In his philanthropic avatar, Epstein donated large sums to varsities in the US, and was able to befriend top scientists and professors in the country.
Based on the charges pressed by the US Justice Department, Epstein ran a racket under which girls were lured to his residences, where he would abuse them. Epstein allegedly made the girls give him nude and semi-nude massages, while also making them engage in sexual acts with him in exchange for money. The girls were sometimes as young as 14.
The indictment report says that Epstein committed these crimes for three years at least, around 2002-2005. The elaborate structure of Epstein’s racket was also revealed, in which several employees and assistants were acting as enablers.
Cover-up of the scandal
In 2005, when police in Florida first came across evidence which could incriminate Epstein, they referred the case to the FBI, fearing Epstein would use his financial clout to get charges watered down if he were charged in state court.
Instead of pressing charges which would have potentially sent Epstein to 45 years in prison, federal prosecutors in 2008 signed a non-prosecution agreement with him, under which Epstein had to plead guilty for a significantly less serious charge; consequently serving only 18 months in prison and having to register as a Level 1 sex offender. As an inmate, Epstein was allowed to leave the prison for 12 hours a day for six days a week on a work release program. His sentence also got curtailed by 5 months.
The prosecutors signed the agreement with Epstein while keeping victims in the dark, and none of the victims got a chance to appear in court against Epstein. The agreement also gave immunity to all co-conspirators. In February this year, a court in Florida ruled that this non-disclosure by prosecutors violated federal law.
Renewed attention and consequent outrage
In 2017, Alexander Acosta, one of the prosecutors who negotiated the plea deal with Epstein, was appointed Labour Secretary in the Trump cabinet. Following this, extensive investigative reporting by the Miami Herald brought the case back in attention, and the matter was also raised before a Senate hearing. The awareness raised by the #MeToo movement in recent years also paved way to calls for a relook. As pressure kept mounting, the US Justice Department decided to reopen the case in February 2019.
What many are now try to understand is how Epstein was able to bend the criminal justice in his favour up until the case crept back into spotlight, as well as the extent of political and administrative corruption which enabled him.
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