Emil Andreas Solemo, 35,and Bo Stefan Sederholm, 31, were convicted of human trafficking this week after being found running an operation in which 17 naked women in an office building performed in front of cameras for overseas internet clients.
The government hailed the verdict as a landmark victory in the battle against human trafficking because the Swedes were the first to be handed life sentences for what has in recent years become a booming cybersex industry.
But both men claim most of the evidence against them was fabricated or obtained illegally, and appear bewildered why they should be jailed for Internet pornography when prostitution is rampant across the Philippines.
“We don’t see ourselves as human traffickers at all,” Solemo, 35, said in an exclusive interview with AFP on Thursday from a crowded jail in the southern city of Cagayan de Oro where they have been since their arrest in April 2009.
Sederholm, 31, bristled at their portrayal by the Philippine press as modern-day slave traders.
“The women were not forced to do it. It was nothing like that at all,” said Sederholm, who like his business partner was wearing a prison-issue yellow T-shirt, long shorts and a sandals.
Solemo, a tall man with gold-rimmed glasses and a goatee, said he and Sederholm were IT consultants who had been hired to set up the computer systems at the cybersex shop where the women worked in Cagayan de Oro.
Although they refused to say who hired them, they denied police charges that they owned the business and recruited the women, saying they only arrived in the country a month before being arrested.
The Swedes also pointed out that the women working in the cybersex operation were all adults – prosecutors never alleged that minors were involved – and said the case against them smacked of hypocrisy.
“Some say it’s (cybersex) demeaning and horrible, but you can go to any city in the Philippines and see girls who are dancing on poles in skimpy clothes. It’s absurd…there are places there that openly sell girls,” Solemo said.
“What we have undertaken here would not have been considered as trafficking anywhere in the West. In the United States or elsewhere it is not illegal to undress before computer cameras if you are of legal age.”
Sederholm said they believed they had become scapegoats to make authorities look good to the United States, which put the Philippines on a blacklist of countries deemed as not doing enough to combat human trafficking.
“They wanted to make a trophy case of us to show to the United States that something is being done about human trafficking,” Sederholm said.
But the judge who delivered the verdict against the Swedes, Jeoffre Acebido, said anyone who sexually exploited impoverished Philippine women should be punished.
“Disrespect for Filipino women and violations of our laws deserve the strongest condemnations from this court,” Acebido wrote in his ruling.
“It will not shirk from its duty to impose the most severe of penalties against anybody, be he a foreign national or a citizen of this country, who tramples upon the dignity of a woman by taking advantage of her vulnerability.”
Beverly Musli, the head of a local women’s rights group that helped prosecutors gather evidence in the case, also said the Swedes deserved to be in jail.
“It’s still trafficking because the victims were recruited from all over the Philippines and transported to the south,” said Musli, who is a lawyer.
She said focusing on cybersex when prostitution was a widespread and open problem across the country was not hypocrisy.
“We are doing our best in stopping all forms of violence against women,” she said.
Both Swedes said they had not given up hope that they would win an acquittal on appeal.
“You just can’t bury yourself and say you’ll not move, not eat. We have to keep going and hoping. Of course we will appeal. We’re not going to lie down,” Solemo said.
But they indicated they were struggling physically and mentally in the crowded jail, sharing a small cell with five other people accused of crimes including murder and drug trafficking.
“In some ways it’s worse than a nightmare in that you can not wake up. It’s the nightmare of not knowing whether we would be spending the next 20-25 years of our life in jail,” Solemo said.
Sederholm refused to discuss his personal life. But Solemo spoke emotionally about his own plight, saying his father died a month ago, his girlfriend had left him and he had lost 17 kilogrammes while in jail.