A nurse known as "Madame Sandra" was found guilty on Thursday of submitting five Nigerians to black magic rituals then forcing them into European sex work in a landmark British slavery case.
A jury at Birmingham Crown Court in central England found Josephine Iyamu, 51, guilty of modern slavery and perverting the course of justice, prosecutors said.
The case marked the first successful prosecution of a Briton for slavery offences committed outside the country and was a test of the country's tough anti-trafficking laws, passed in 2015 to crack down on the modern human slave trade.
"Iyamu exploited five vulnerable women by promising them a better life in Europe. Instead she treated the women like property," Andy Young of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which prosecutes criminal cases, said in a statement.
The court heard how Iyamu masterminded a trafficking scheme that began with voodoo ceremonies in west Africa and ended in brothels in mainland Europe.
Proceeds from the crime funded a lifestyle well beyond Iyamu's moderate income, said Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA), noting that the nurse travelled frequently to Europe and owned a large house with servant's quarters in Nigeria.
Iyamu, who denied the accusations, will be sentenced in July.
Iyamu arranged travel from Nigeria to Europe for five women, charging up to 38,000 euros ($44,000) for the journey, and then made them work in brothels to repay the debt, the court heard.
The women were made to undergo a black magic ritual known as "juju", in which they pledged not to run away or inform police.
During the ceremony - performed by a voodoo priest - the women were made to drink blood mixed with worms, eat a chicken heart and had black powder rubbed inside fresh wounds, according to NCA, a law enforcement agency dealing with organised crime.
"With zero regard for their safety and well being, she (Iyamu) sent them via dangerous routes to Germany and forced them to work in brothels to fund her own lifestyle," said NCA operations manager Kay Mellor.
Iyamu was arrested as she flew into London last August after police were tipped off by a brothel owner in Germany, who suspected one of the women was on a fake passport.
Britain passed tough anti-slavery legislation in 2015 introducing life sentences for traffickers and allowed for British nationals to be tried for trafficking offences regardless of where they took place.
Women's rights group Equality Now said the verdict sent a strong message that human trafficking was unacceptable.
"We hope a successful conviction will lead to more perpetrators being arrested and prosecuted," Tsitsi Matekaire, who manages the charity's End Sex Trafficking programme, said.
Thousands of Nigerian women and girls are lured to Europe each year, made to perform 'juju' rituals then forced into sex work in Italy, according to the United Nations.
The rituals leave victims fearing that relatives will fall ill or die if they disobey their traffickers.
In March, Nigeria's anti-trafficking agency welcomed an order by a leading traditional ruler that revoked voodoo curses saying the move should sharply reduce the number of people being trafficked to Europe.
LONDON, June 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) by Umberto Bacchi
Additional quotes from Equality Now's End Sex Trafficking Program Manager Tsitsi Matekaire:
"Equality Now welcomes this guilty verdict under the UK’s Modern Slavery Act. Prosecution of sex trafficking offenders is a crucial step in enabling victims to gain justice, and to recover from the deep trauma caused by commercial sexual exploitation. It also sends a strong message that human trafficking is unacceptable and perpetrators will be punished."
"Nigerian women and girls make up a substantial percentage of those trafficked into Europe's prostitution industry. In 2016, IOM recorded over 11,000 women and girls victims in Italy, some en-route to other European countries."
"We call for the decriminalization and support of those selling sex, and for the criminalization of those exploiting people in prostitution - traffickers, pimps and brothel owners – as well as buyers who fuel the sex trade and sex trafficking. Where the prostitution industry is legalized, as the case with Germany, this increases the occurrence and risk of sex trafficking."
"The case reveals the transnational nature of the criminal networks and their activities and we welcome cooperation of Nigerian, Germany and UK officials to bring perpetrators to book."
Equality Now was founded in 1992 with the mission of using legal advocacy to protect and promote the human rights of women and girls. For more than 25 years, we have been using the law to create a just world for women and girls. By directing global public and media attention on individual cases [...]