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His family were vacationing when they were told, said Hirantha Pereira recently, with a sigh.
“Apparently, Interpol had contacted the police in Sri Lanka, and they told us,” he said, on a Zoom call from his home in London.
The family rushed onto a plane as soon as they learned someone had killed Belinda Pereira, Hirantha’s sister, in Dublin.
The family had relatives in Ireland who told his father what the newspapers were saying about Belinda. “My father didn’t share it with us,” says Hirantha.
When they went to identify her body, photographers took their photos coming out of the city’s mortuary. Hirantha saw the headlines the day after, he says. He didn’t read the articles.
“It would have been distressing for my mother if she had seen those headlines,” said Hirantha.
An article in the Irish Examiner from 6 January 1997 features a close-up of Hirantha’s face gazing down. The photo caption says that the Garda sub-aqua team was trawling the River Liffey, hoping to find the object used to kill Belinda.
It calls her a “Sri Lankan prostitute”, though she was born and raised in the United Kingdom, and reported that her mother and brother, who were pictured, had come to take her body home.
On 28 December 1996, Belinda Pereira, a Londoner who had flown to Dublin for a sex work gig, was murdered inside a flat at the Mellor Court apartments, a shy brick building on Liffey Street Lower.
Newspapers at the time published Belinda’s name before Gardaí had officially released it. The coverage and sensational headlines were how the family found out Belinda was a sex worker, says Hirantha. “She was a very private person.”
Gardaí never found Belinda’s murderer. Media discussions around her killing hewed to narratives of moral panic about sex work or pity for her as a sex worker, accompanied by often contradictory claims from anonymous sources about her personal life.
Twenty-seven years on, the killing of another woman, Geila Ibram, in early April has still failed to touch off a rational debate on how to better protect sex workers and wash off stigma, say sex workers’ rights advocates.
So far in 2023 alone, sex workers have reported 268 cases of assaults to Ugly Mugs, a non-profit that offers an app for improving the safety of sex workers, says its director Lucy Smyth.
Said Linda Kavanagh, communications manager of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI): “It’s all like, well, it’s inherently unsafe thereby, the law is good, and everything is working.”
“The press can sort of write whatever they want, and nobody interviewed us or asked us about what we thought, you know,” says Hirantha, Belinda’s brother.
Coverage of her murder was, at times, deeply invasive. A scoop allegedly based on Belinda’s diary landed in the hands of the Sunday World, which ran an article on 12 January 1997 headlined: “Slain Hooker’s Diary Names Celeb Clients”.
The tabloid’s report includes a quote attributed to an unnamed Garda source saying the clients’ names must be kept confidential, but that the Gardaí has to interview them as part of the murder probe.
“They made up their own story, you know; I mean, we didn’t know what was going on,” says Hirantha, Belinda’s brother.
Smyth, the director of Ugly Mugs, says the interest in Belinda Pereira’s murder was voyeuristic. “So the attention it got in the media was sort of about people’s opinion of the situation or speculating about pimps and drugs and prostitution.”
On 5 January 1997, the Sunday World ran an article claiming that a wealthy banker – “who cannot be named for legal reasons” – had asked Belinda to marry him and quit sex work and was “even willing to leave his wife” for her.
“But Belinda said no and continued working as a prostitute to feed her growing drug habit,” says the article.
Says Smyth: “She was never looked at as a human being, really.”
In December 2022, the Irish Examiner published an editorial, which was followed by an article in the Irish Independent in January this year, comparing and criticising the attention given to another unresolved murder over Belinda’s cold case.
That’s the case of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the French television producer murdered in her west Cork home on 23 December 1996, about a week before Belinda.
Hirantha, Belinda’s brother, says he doesn’t know about all that. He doesn’t know who du Plantier is. No journalist in Ireland had contacted him for an interview before, he says.
Gardaí have contacted him once since his parents’ death, he says. “My father passed away in 2012.”
Their mother had died of cancer before that, Hirantha says. She had been very close to Belinda and was undone by grief after her murder, he says.
“When this happened, part of her kind of died, I think. You know, she didn’t have the will to live anymore,” said Hirantha.
Hirantha doesn’t know about the extent or frequency of Garda follow-ups and contact with his parents, he says. “We never really spoke about it.”
After Belinda’s murder, the family sold their London home and moved back to Sri Lanka, leaving a life they had worked hard to build.
Their parents had come to London for their honeymoon and decided to stay, says Hirantha.
“My father worked for [the] airline Lufthansa. Mum was working for the Crown Prosecution Service,” he said.
Hirantha only returned to London recently. He plans to move back again to Sri Lanka once the political and economic situation there improves, he said.
In 2015, a year after Store Street Garda Station, which is investigating Belinda’s murder, made its last public appeal for information about the case, Hirantha got a letter from a Garda superintendent that said his sister’s case was still open.
But “he basically said that regrettably, there’s not, there’s no progress at the moment. They don’t have any new leads on it,” says Hirantha.
He didn’t hear anything after that, and navigating divorce at the time, he didn’t follow up either.
About a year ago, he emailed them, though, he said. “I just inquired if there was any progress in the case,” says Hirantha. They said no, he says.
On 30 January, a spokesperson for An Garda Síochána said that its investigators continue to be in touch with Belinda’s family.
“Details of communications with victims of serious crime by Garda [Family Liaison Officers] is strictly confidential,” they said.
Smyth, the director of Ugly Mugs, says she asked Gardaí to make another public appeal for information on the 25th anniversary of her murder last year. It didn’t listen, she says.
“An Garda Síochána does not discuss or comment on remarks made by third parties,” said a Garda spokesperson.
Says Smyth: “I think the case has been forgotten about now.”
A Garda spokesperson said the case is still live, and detectives at Store Street Garda Station are still working to solve it.
“Upwards of 436 statements were taken and some 708 lines of inquiry explored between 1996 and 1999,” they said.
In August 2005, it fully re-examined the file, the spokesperson said, and the case featured on RTÉ One’s “Crime Call” programme in October of that year.
In December 2006 and again in 2014, it made fresh public appeals for information about the case, too, they said.
“It remains the case that there is insufficient evidence available to complete a file for the Director of Public Prosecutions,” the spokesperson said.
They’re still asking anyone with information about the case to “contact the incident room at Store Street Garda Station 01 666 8000 or the Garda Confidential Line 1800 666 111”, they said_._
Smyth, the director of Ugly Mugs, wrote to the Policing Authority on Friday 21 April asking if it would inquire about Belinda’s case at its upcoming meeting on 25 April with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, where cold cases were on the agenda.
Bob Collins, the chairperson of the Policing Authority, didn’t ask about any individual case on Tuesday though.
But Harris said that he has a list of 16 cold cases with active investigation statuses in front of him, promising to send on written details about them.
“Some of them are more in the public domain than others,” Harris said.
He didn’t give details or names for the cases on the list.
Making Sex Work Safer
Hirantha, Belinda’s brother, says maybe Gardaí didn’t feel much public pressure and scrutiny to motivate them to solve the case.
“Not that they didn’t do anything. But there wasn’t too much public pressure, maybe,” he said.
“No one likes that kind of thing happening in their town,” said Hirantha. “Maybe they thought it’s a good deterrent and might stop people from coming here and doing this type of thing,” he says.
“But from our perspective, it’s completely different. We never saw her in that way,” he said.
Some headlines and the stories published at the time of Belinda’s murder focused on the dangers and violence that sex workers may face.
An article from 5 January 1997 in the Sunday Independent criticised the Gardaí for ignoring the issue.
“The Gardaí do not know much about the call-girl scene in Dublin and are happy to turn a blind eye to it,” it says.
The debate continues today about how the law can best reduce the dangers and violence that sex workers may face, but opinions are divided.
Now, under the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, selling sex isn’t illegal, but buying it is.
This was supposed to make sex workers safer, but some sex workers have criticised the approach for not going far enough and also legalising the purchase of sex.
A 2022 report by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the upshot of 210 formal interviews with sex workers, found that 96 percent of participants said the Nordic model – which makes the purchase of sex illegal as in Ireland – made them feel unsafe and vulnerable to exploitation.
Because it pushes sex workers into dangerous situations as they try to protect their clients, the report says.
The policy also makes access to housing more difficult for sex workers because their landlords or hostel owners can be accused of pimping, it says.
Under the current law, in Ireland, sex workers can’t share the same premises for work, even for safety, because that counts as brothel-keeping so would be illegal.
It can also get migrant sex workers on precarious immigration statuses into trouble and get them deported, the LSE report says.
“It finds that policing still targets sex workers, with ramifications including evictions and deportation,” says a news release about the report on the university’s website.
The report says that “The findings show that the majority of interviewees … support removing criminal penalties related to the sex trade so that sex sale can be organised without punity,” the report found.
There is evidence that decriminalisation can improve the relationship between the police and sex workers, making them safer.
In New Zealand, where buying and selling sex are both legal and sex work is recognised as work, one study found the relationship between the police and sex workers to improve drastically.
Workers reported feeling safer and more likely to contact police to report violence if they experienced it, says the study.
Kavanagh, of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland, says the relationship between sex workers and the Gardaí is fraught under current laws. “The stigma is enormous,” she says.
“From our experience of working with sex workers in Ireland, there is a massive fear of being outed and experiencing discrimination from the immediate community, the neighbours, the Gardaí, within other workplace settings,” Kavanagh says.
In discussions about trafficking, Kavanagh says, nuances like how immigration reform could help are also missing. “People are voiceless,” she says.
“You either get a depiction of a very high-end sex worker with lots of choices or this helpless victim who may be in addiction, who is maybe coerced,” Kavanagh said.
But most people’s experiences don’t fit into a binary, she said.
The sex workers SWAI works with are all strong women, said Kavanagh, and need support to get by, like everyone else.
“They don’t need their clients criminalised, they need housing, they need drug support, they need the things that we all need and are not offered,” Kavanagh said.
She also pointed to how discussions around sex work policies often exclude male sex workers. The Nordic Model has been criticised for neglecting queer sex workers too.
But the notion of full decriminalisation does have its critics in Ireland.
In the wake of the recent murder of Geila Ibram, Ruhama, a charity that works with women affected by prostitution, the Women’s Council of Ireland and the Sexual Research Programme (SERP) at University College Dublin, shared a joint statement stressing the dangers of sex work.
“Geila’s murder highlights once again how the sex trade is inherently violent, dangerous and harmful,” it said.
The group blames sex buyers, pimps and traffickers. Pimps and traffickers would hugely profit if sex work became fully decriminalised because it would be harder to hold them to account, they write.
“In fact, calls such as this do a grave injustice to the women and girls being assaulted, exploited and harmed in the sex trade right now,” it says.
“We must do everything we can to tackle Ireland’s highly exploitative sex trade and the perpetrators of violence within it before another woman’s life is lost,” says the statement.
They point to a European Commission report that shows, they say, that “decriminalising sex buyers, pimps and prostitution organisers expands the sex trade and the violence and other grave human rights abuses that accompany it”.
The LSE report says that the discourse equating commercial sex and sex trafficking is not in line with the realities experienced by sex workers.
Among its pool of 210 sex workers who participated in the research, only six percent considered themselves to have been trafficked or coerced to sell sex.
“Intention to earn money was cited as the single biggest motivator for those engaging in the sex trade and/or migrating for commercial sex irrespective of their interpretation or feelings of the sex trade,” it says.
“Therefore, this study concludes that commercial sex needs to be understood as an income generating activity, a form of informal labour,” says the LSE report.
A spokesperson for Ruhama said that it has 30 years of experience supporting women impacted by prostitution and human trafficking.
“Our frontline work with women witnesses how prostitution and sex trafficking is exploitative, inherently violent and demeaning to women,” they said.
But they said that Ireland adopted the Nordic Model in 2017 after years of deliberations which included survivors of sex work and sex workers.
“The sex trade is a multi-billion-euro business run primarily by organised crime networks that exploit the poorest and most marginalised women and girls in our societies,” they said.
Making sex shopping illegal, the spokesperson said, means men who want to pay for “sexual access to often very vulnerable women and girls” can’t do that anymore.
They said that the examples of the Netherlands, Germany, Australia and New Zealand show that legalisation or full decriminalsation has expanded the sex trade, leading to human rights abuses.
Legalisation will expand the sex trade, brings with it more “pimping, trafficking and indeed more murders of women in prostitution,” said the Ruhama spokesperson.
“Also, there are significantly more victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation found in European countries that have legalised prostitution, hence Ruhama supports the Equality [Nordic] model,” they said.
Pimping, prostitution and trafficking are all outlawed in Germany and the Netherlands, according to the EU Commission study.
Kavanagh and Smyth say that the Gardaí didn’t alert sex workers when the alleged murderer of Geila Ibram was still on the loose.
Smyth says she had asked the Gardaí’s Organised Prostitution Investigation Unit (OPIU) – which had contacted her with a request to access information reported to Ugly Mugs following Ibram’s murder – to put her in touch with the investigation unit in County Limerick to ask them to let sex workers know what the alleged murderer looked like or any information they may need to make sure they are safe.
But they didn’t, she said. OPIU told her it wasn’t up to them to alert sex workers, she says.
On Friday, a spokesperson for the Gardaí said that the argument that an alleged murderer was targeting sex workers or any community sector and that required an alert is “speculative and ill-informed”.
It can’t comment on the specific actions taken in any particular investigation, they said.
But “the information and intelligence available to the Garda investigation team did not give rise to any immediate heightened apprehension for the safety of the community in general or any particular community sector”, the spokesperson said.
“An Garda Síochána takes its duty of care to the public in general very seriously, in line with our statutory obligations and mission statement of Keeping People Safe,” they said.
Back in London, Hirantha, who says he mostly tries to forget and move on to avoid worsening his pain, sometimes daydreams about what it would’ve been like if Belinda was still alive.
“I was thinking she would’ve been married, had children of her own, and we would see each other,” he said. “She was my only sister, you know?”