Neang Thy Pheung spent the last year of her short life as a captive, having sex several times a day with soldiers, traders—whoever her pimp ordered her to—in the dim hope that one day her “debt” to him might be paid off.
The 24-year-old had been kidnapped and forced into the trade. She died before she could buy her freedom with her body.
Now, the brothel owner accused of beating her to death may have bought his own freedom from the courts, human rights workers charged this week.
Rights workers said the case is typical of how greed and corruption allow sex slavery and trafficking to flourish in Cambodia.
Miet Bunrith, 38, was released last month by the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court, which ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove he had killed Neang Thy Pheung and had imprisoned 22 other girls at his brothel, according to provincial officials.
His release, despite affidavits from 11 witnesses to the fatal beating, has outraged rights workers and government officials, particularly because his arrest June 25 had been hailed as a breakthrough.
“I feel very angry and very sad. We worked so hard to have this man arrested, and now he is free again,” said Lim Mony, an investigator for the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc.
The raid on Miet Bunrith’s brothel in the Thai-Cambodian border town of Poipet was believed to be the first successful shutdown of one of the 30 lucrative and well-protected brothels in the area. Adhoc workers say the Poipet area is notorious for attracting patrons from Thailand and serves as a crossroads for sex and labor trafficking.
Most depressing of all, Lim Mony said, is the familiarity of the story. Corruption among police, military and the courts make it rare for a brothel owner to be arrested and even rarer for him or her to actually serve out a prison sentence, activists say.
Because of the strong evidence against him, rights workers and government officials say they believe Miet Bunrith bribed his way out of trouble, but they had insufficient evidence to prove it.
Banteay Meanchey Governor Duong Khem said Sunday that he had heard that Miet Bunrith paid 150,000 Thai baht (about $4,000) to unspecified court officials before being released and dropping out of sight.
“It is injustice,” Duong Khem said. “I strongly condemn the actions of court officials who do not respect the law.”
But Duong Khem said he could do nothing about the case because he does not control all aspects of his province. Miet Bunrith, he said, “has close relations with high-ranking officials.” He would not name the officials.
Banteay Meanchey courts have no telephones and officials there could not be reached for comment Monday.
Ministry of Justice Secretary of State Ly Vouch Leang denied widespread corruption exists in the courts.
“People should not refer to Cambodia’s system as very corrupt….It is not a general problem,” she said Monday. “This accusation of taking bribes in Banteay Meanchey will take time to investigate. If they have committed wrong, they will receive a penalty according to the law.”
The 22 prostitutes who were freed in the June 25 brothel raid told similar tales to Adhoc investigators of how they came into Miet Bunrith’s employ. Most were lured into the establishment with promises of jobs cleaning or cooking. Others were sold by relatives or lovers.
Either way, the women were soon locked up and forced to thumbprint an “employment contract.” After they signed, they were told they owed a debt of 5,000 baht (about $130) and they must buy back their freedom by working in the brothel. However, the women said no matter how long they worked, they were told they still owed more.
The freed women said Miet Bunrith used to brag about his connections to powerful military commanders in the area, warning his girls that they should not try to escape because soldiers would bring them back, Lim Mony said.
On June 17, according to
witness affidavits, Neang Thy Pheung told her boss that she was too sick to have sex. An enraged Miet Bunrith reportedly picked up a piece of wood and beat her bloody. She died four days later of head, neck and back injuries, rights worker said.
The death proved too much for one of her fellow captive prostitutes. Later, while at a nightclub under the watch of several guards, 18-year-old Tun Sopheap managed to convey the information to an undercover rights worker who had befriended her.
Rights workers, having heard that Miet Bunrith was planning to dispose of Neang Thy Pheung’s body, persuaded local military and police to raid the brothel and arrest its owner.
By mid-September, however, Miet Bunrith was again free. Adhoc investigators said the court told them there was not enough evidence to prosecute him.
Adhoc’s chief of monitoring, Y Kosal Vathana, said the group is now working to get Miet Bunrith, who has dropped out of sight, rearrested and prosecuted in Cambodia’s Appeals Court.
“We are writing a letter to the prosecutor-general to reinvestigate this case,” Y Kosal Vathana said. “I feel this is a terrible injustice for the victim who has died.”