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A federal magistrate judge on Tuesday ordered a New Hampshire couple detained pending trial for a sex-trafficking operation in which they were accused of recruiting Chinese women to travel to the U.S. on tourist visas to engage in paid sex across northern New England.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Darcie McElwee praised the detention order, citing “a serious risk of flight and danger to the community, especially the Chinese women involved in the operation.”

An FBI agent testified that 37-year-old Shou Chao Li ran a restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire, at the same time he and his wife, 37-year-old Derong Miao, engaged in sex trafficking.

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The scale of the alleged operation was large by rural New England standards with at least 27 women engaging in sex at locations across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Authorities discovered after the couple’s arrest another location, a massage parlor in Rochester, New Hampshire, where they believe prostitution also took place. Miao is linked to that operation as well, the agent testified.

Miao used a messaging service popular in China, called WeChat, to recruit women who were isolated and controlled by the couple, FBI Special Agent Christopher Peavey testified Tuesday. The couple kept the passport of one of the women, he testified.

“They were predominantly fearful of law enforcement but in general they were fearful,” he testified. “They were fearful of the people they worked for.”

Mingli Chen, attorney for Li, suggested that the federal government’s case was weak. His client contends he was only paid to give the women rides to various locations.

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“There’s no evidence showing to the court or anybody that my client was hurting or injuring or harming anyone, was forcing anyone to engage in prostitution,” Chen said.

The two were arrested Dec. 13, and police searched their three cars, their home in Concord, New Hampshire, a second home and the No. 1 Chinese Restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Their attorneys argued Tuesday that they were not at risk of flight, and that they posted no danger to their communities.

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.