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Argentine Sex Slave Trial Clears 13 Accused
Judges have acquitted all the defendants in a high-profile case of an Argentine woman who was allegedly kidnapped and forced into sex slavery a decade ago.
When Maria de los Angeles "Marita" Veron vanished in 2002, her mother, Susana Trimarco, launched a one-woman campaign to find her - and rescued hundreds of women from sex slavery along the way.
Marita Veron, 23, had left to go to a doctor's appointment in their hometown in the northern Argentine province of Tucuman, but she never came back.
After getting little help from police, Ms Trimarco started her own investigation into a tip that Ms Veron was abducted and forced into sex slavery.
Soon, Ms Trimarco was visiting brothels seeking clues about her daughter and the search took on an additional goal of rescuing sex slaves and helping them start new lives.
Ms Trimarco has been honoured by the US State Department and the Argentine government, and even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize - but she has never found her daughter.
The 13 people on trial - seven men and six women - faced up to 25 years in prison if convicted on charges they abducted Marita Veron and made her work as a prostitute.
The three-judge panel delayed for more than four hours on Tuesday night before reading their unanimous verdict: not guilty of any of the charges.
The courtroom erupted at the news, with the defendants sobbing and spectators shouting expletives.
Politicians for and against Argentina's government tweeted in support of Ms Trimarco, who was honoured with a human rights award from Argentine President Cristina Fernandez on Sunday night.
The judges later explained from the bench that despite the testimony of more than 130 witnesses, including a dozen former sex slaves who described brutal conditions in brothels, there was no physical evidence linking any of the defendants to Ms Veron, and no trace of her whereabouts.
"It's absolutely clear that this is an act of corruption," said one of Ms Trimarco's lawyers, Jose D'Antona.
Ms Trimarco was clearly upset but kept her composure as she left the courthouse.
Later, she told Argentina's TN news channel that she will promote an effort to impeach the three judges.
"We won't stop until these three con men are put on trial. These judges today were an embarrassment for Argentina," Ms Trimarco said.
Defence lawyer Hernan Molina defended the judges, however, saying they had done the right thing.
"There wasn't any evidence. The judges can't convict innocent people," he told reporters at the courthouse.
The defendants, who were all accused of participating in organised crime in Argentina's provinces, told the judges as the trial wrapped up that they were the victims of a politically charged process.
Maria Jesus Rivero, owner of the car service allegedly used to kidnap Ms Veron, told the judges he had already been effectively convicted by Argentine security minister Nilda Garre, who had asked the judges to set an example by convicting them all.
"There isn't a single piece of evidence that links me to the people accused here, just the declarations of liars. Marita isn't here, and we don't have anything to do with this," Mr Rivero said.
Ms Trimarco was the primary witness during the trial, testifying for six straight days about her search for her daughter.
The road to trial was a long one.
With her husband and granddaughter in tow, Ms Trimarco disguised herself as a recruiter of prostitutes and entered brothel after brothel searching for clues.
She soon found herself immersed in the dangerous and grim world of organised crime, gathering evidence against police, politicians and gangsters.
In an interview last week, Ms Trimarco recalled how the very first woman she had rescued taught her to be strong.
"She told me not to let them see me cry, because these shameless people who had my daughter would laugh at me, and at my pain," Ms Trimarco recalled.
"Since then I don't cry anymore. I've made myself strong, and when I feel that a tear might drop, I remember these words."
When Ms Veron disappeared, she had a three-year-old daughter Micaela.
Now 13, Micaela has been by her grandmother's side throughout the year-long trial, contributing to publicity campaigns against human trafficking and keeping her mother's memory alive.
In 2008, the story of Ms Trimarco's search for Marita became the basis of a soap opera, Vidas Robadas (Stolen Lives).