Six Vietnamese sex workers rescued from a Phnom Penh brothel were given six-month prison sentences Wednesday for immigration violations and will be deported after leaving jail—the same day government officials and aid workers met to discuss the judiciary’s blurring of criminals and trafficking victims.
Trafficking victims “should not be treated as criminals and [they] should not fear court proceedings,” said Gerard Kramer, the ambassador from the Netherlands who spoke to participants at the National Seminar on Law Enforcement Against Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Children, sponsored by the Ministry of Interior.
Laurence Gray of the NGO World Vision said he was pleased with the level of communication at Wednesday’s meeting.
“This program was started to promote responsiveness by the police and we have done that,” he said. Now, he said, the onus is on the judiciary.
Dozens of recent arrests of Vietnamese sex workers have pushed forward the debate on how victims of sexual trafficking should be handled by the legal system.
Kramer referenced the high profile case of 14 young Vietnamese girls who were rescued in a series of brothel raids in May only to be arrested on immigration charges and taken from the custody of an Phnom Penh advocacy group.
The six sentenced Wednesday were part of a group of 11 women—aged 19 to 33—arrested on May 30 after police raided the Rasmey Massage Parlor in Daun Penh district.
During the raid, the police also arrested Keo Sokha, the alleged massage parlor owner. The court later charged Keo Sokha with debauchery, but she was released on bail July 16 pending further investigation.
The 11 women were tried on Sept 9. They have been detained in CCII prison in Prey Sar since their arrest.
Municipal Court Judge Sok Sethamony acquitted one woman who proved she was born in Cambodia and withheld judgment against four others, saying the court needed to find more evidence against them.
On Tuesday, Cambodian legal experts suggested that a draft human trafficking law needs to contain more specific definitions of “human abduction.”
They also recommended expanding the legal definition of trafficking victims to include those brought in from a foreign country to work either in Cambodia or elsewhere as laborers or in the sex industry.
Cambodia’s loose policing and weak judiciary has made the country attractive to human smugglers who use it as a gateway to the sex trade elsewhere.
“Thousands of minors are lured into prostitution under false job offers,” said co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng in his opening speech. “Many girls are trafficked from rural areas in towns or across borders.”
Louis-Georges Arsenault of Unicef hinted on Wednesday at a different approach to dealing with prostitution in Cambodia.
“The experience in many countries has shown that to consider prostitution as a criminal activity has only resulted in driving prostitution deeper underground,” he said.
“A more pragmatic approach…would be for the state to regulate prostitution. In this way, sex workers can be more easily identified, located and provided with protection from exploitation and violence, as well as access to social or medical services.”