Three women arrested last month in Phnom Penh on suspicion of involvement in an underage sex trafficking ring were released last week, military police said on Tuesday, while their lawyer claimed that the case against them had been dropped altogether.
The move came after an NGO investigating the case claimed last week that a powerful official had intervened on behalf of the alleged head of the ring.
The women were detained in April after military police raided a villa in Phnom Penh and found 13 teenage girls who had allegedly been lured from their homes by a suspect intending to traffic them to Thailand for sex work. The three suspects—the only adults at the villa—were questioned for two days at military police headquarters before being let go on May 3, Sen Komon, head of the municipal military police’s anti-trafficking bureau, said on Tuesday.
“The court’s prosecutor released the three women on bail a week ago because a lawyer intervened for them as they were not found to be involved with the trafficking case,” Mr. Komon said.
Shortly before the women’s release, Mr. Komon said he had sent the three women to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and recommended a slew of charges under the anti-human trafficking law but was surprised to find that the court had rejected all of them.
Military police initially identified a woman named Chan Malika as the head of the trafficking ring and the person who rented out the villa from its owner. They said she was being sought for arrest, as many of the girls at the house had identified her as their captor.
However, Mr. Komon said on Tuesday that she was no longer being actively pursued.
“We have investigated and found that Ms. Chan Malika is not involved in human trafficking or any career involving smuggling people overseas,” he said.
Although Mr. Komon said the case against the other women was still being investigated, Long Dara, president of the law firm LDR Group, which was retained by Ms. Malika to defend her and the three women, insisted on Tuesday that the case had been dropped entirely.
“I wish to state that ‘freed’ does not mean military police and the court released them on bail. Rather, they agreed to bring the case to an end because they don’t have evidence to accuse my clients,” he said.
The International Justice Mission, an anti-trafficking NGO that helped investigate the case, said last week that a powerful person at the Defense Ministry had intervened to have the case dismissed.
However, the group released a statement a day later disavowing the claim.
“[IJM] is not directly involved with the Defense Ministry, court proceedings or prosecution for the Malika case and therefore cannot say whether or not there has been any intervention on behalf of the house owner by any government official,” the statement said.