Leaders: Merciful move may not help snare masterminds | Patience will pay off for Afghans

DRUG addiction is a persistent scourge of modern Scotland, so the public quite rightly demands that those guilty of trafficking, manufacturing, and dealing drugs get long prison sentences. But is it always right that people found cultivating cannabis should also be imprisoned?

No, it isn’t, police have now said. Some of the people found in houses or other premises growing cannabis on a large scale, they say, are also victims of crime. They may be people, very often young, who have been duped on the promise of work in a rich country by criminal gangs operating in poor countries – in Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe – and who have been turned into slaves.

The same, even more repulsively, is often true of women who have been snared into working as prostitutes. Forced to rely on their captors for food and a roof over their heads, and subject to violence if they do not co-operate, they are victims of a heartless and brutal crime. These unfortunates can also be compelled into begging or relatively low-level criminality, such as pick-pocketing or shop-lifting.

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All are victims of a much bigger and more abhorrent crime – people-trafficking. It is as repugnant as the slavery, which was abolished in Britain in the 19th century. It is also a much bigger problem in 21st century Scotland than many people think; in 2011 there were 93 cases of suspected human trafficking, so the number of current victims may now run to the hundreds.

Police Scotland has decided that even if these people are guilty of what ordinarily would be considered to be a crime, it is both heartless and pointless to prosecute them. Heartless, because it adds to the misery they are already enduring, and pointless because it doesn’t necessarily lead to the apprehension of the real criminals – the slavemasters.

This, in a civilised country, is a laudable decision. But it may be a mistake to think that if the threat of prison is removed from those liberated from enslavement, they will give the police more information on their captors, making it easier to track them down and jail them.

Human-trafficking gangs are sophisticated. They often know where their victims come from, and who their relatives are. Even if they don’t have that information, the threat that they do, and that harm will befall a victim’s relatives if they attempt to escape or give information to the authorities, or just fail to co-operate, is enough to ensure their silence.

And perversely, an unintended consequence of this change of police attitude may also be to encourage more willing trafficking victims. Destitution is relative, and what we may see as dreadful enslavement might look like a comparative improvement to someone living in shantytown squalor.

The police move is compassionate and civilised, but the task of ridding Scotland of the Mr Bigs of this evil trade may be just as difficult.

Patience will pay off for Afghans

As the death and injury toll of British service men and women continues to rise in Afghanistan, it only serves to confirm what the majority of people think – that our forces should get out of that benighted country as soon as possible. But lest political leaders concede to that opinion, Britain’s most senior commander there, Lieutenant-General Nick Carter, deputy chief of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), has said that a faster withdrawal than that currently planned, to be complete by the end of 2014, would be “unforgiveable”.

The plan is that a phased reduction in British and other Nato forces should be accompanied by an increase in the skill and capacity of Afghan government forces, so that they become capable of turning the tide against insurgents and other lawless paramilitaries, such as drug smugglers.

That hope looks a little forlorn – the tide of violence in which Nato forces have to intervene looks as large as ever. But to focus on that is to ignore the gains that have been made, for example in the reconstruction of education and health services.

It is also clear that the strife and violence will not end when Nato forces withdraw, for this is not a battle by some insurgents solely against foreign forces, but also a civil war against the government of president Hamid Karzai. Corrupt though his regime may be, there is still an obligation on Nato governments to ensure that reconstruction is carried through and that Mr Karzai’s forces are capable of defending these improvements.

There is probably no good time for withdrawal, but later rather than sooner is better for the majority of Afghans who want to live in peace.