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Ask performs public retreat on prostitution

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Ask performs public retreat on prostitution
11:07 CET+01:00
Sweden's justice minister Beatrice Ask has bowed to mounting criticism and performed a public u-turn on her suggestion that colour-coded envelopes be sent to suspected sex-buyers.

"I regret that I expressed myself so clumsily," the minister told news agency TT on Wednesday.

Ask made her controversial statements at a parliament seminar on prostitution and trafficking last Thursday, saying that a suspected sex-buyer's family and friends should be informed.

"I could imagine having envelopes in a very garish colour and sending them home to people suspected of this offence," she said.

Ask argued that naming and shaming sex buyers would be an effective deterrent.

"I think the worst thing that can happen to many of them who are out there buying sex is that someone in their circles finds out about it."

But Ask has now conceded that it is important to respect the principle of innocent until proven guilty and that offenders and suspects of all crimes should be treated equally.

"I do not propose that the justice system should send envelopes of a certain colour home to either suspects or the convicted and the government does not plan to introduce any such measure," Ask said.

The minister expressed regret that her comments have buried the important issue of crime prevention and the protection of young people.

"We have to give some thought to how young people can be protected on the internet and in other arenas where they are at risk of being abused," she said.

Ask had received the backing of prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on Tuesday who dismissed calls from Thomas Bodström, Ask's Social Democrat predecessor, for the minister to publicly retract her comments or resign.

Reinfeldt argued that calls for ministers to resign are made far too "hastily" and drew a parallel with the escape of police killer Tony Olsson from Hall prison which occurred under Bodström's tenure as justice minister.

"Tony Olsson had stepped out from Hall and that is I think more in line with a minister's responsibilities. He (Bodström) has now clearly lowered his threshhold for what he considers worthy of calling for a resignation," Reinfeldt told TT.

Bodström rejected Reinfeldt's comparison.

"Prisoners escape during all mandate periods. It is worse to have a justice minister that can not distinguish between innocent and guilty," he told TT.

Criticism against Ask has not been reserved to opposition representatives as voices across the political spectrum joined a mounting chorus of criticism, calling on the minister to "make a humble public apology or resign".

In a leader article in the right-leaning daily Svenska Dagbladet, journalist Sanna Rayman argued on Tuesday that Ask's comments and handling of the controversy have left the playing field open for Thomas Bodström to take the Moderate minister to task in debates leading up to the election.

"She doesn't come across as a credible centre-right justice minster," Rayman wrote adding that Bodström had not in fact demanded Ask's resignation, but had presented it as an alternative to performing a u-turn.

Johan Pehrson of Alliance coalition partner the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) underlined that the penalty for a particular offence should be reserved to sentencing and not in the way the sentence is communicated.

"I think that the letter should be sent home in the same type of envelope as any other offence," Pehrson told the Aftonbladet tabloid.

In expressing her view to the seminar which was convened to discuss a book entitled "14 years for sale" (14 år till salu) by Caroline Engvall which relates the story of a schoolgirl's slide into prostitution and substance abuse, Ask referred to the middle ages' practice of public humiliation.

"It is a little like being shamed on the town square," the government minister said.

Speaking to Aftonbladet on Friday, Ask conceded that the garish envelope idea was perhaps not the best idea in practice, but defended the idea in principle.

"In practice maybe we can't have coloured envelopes, but we have to show who they are and let those around them know," she said to the newspaper.

Ask conceded that she is known for being a bit "wild" amongst her colleagues and that the issue would require discussion.

Fredrik Reinfeldt clarified on Tuesday that discussions had taken place with his justice minister.

"Yes, we are in agreement that we are not going to present such a proposal," he told TT.

But in making her public u-turn on Wednesday, Ask underlined that public attitudes to buying sex and abusing young people are significant.

"We have a responsibility as adults to see that young people who are not doing so well do not end up in prostitution," Beatrice Ask said.

Since 1999 it has been illegal in Sweden to buy sex. The crime carries a penalty of a fine or up to six months imprisonment.

In adopting the law, which was updated in 2005, the government explained that the purpose is to fight prostitution which is considered to pose serious damage to both the individual and for society and was often conducted in connection with other serious criminal offences.

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