Ten men armed with knives and stones broke into a women’s shelter for trafficking and brothel victims Sunday afternoon and took away four women recently rescued from a karaoke and massage parlor, officials said Tuesday.
Security guard Hong Hak said he was resting under a tree inside the Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights compound in Russei Keo district at around 1 pm when four men jumped the gate.
“They held a knife to my throat and threatened to hit me in the head with a stone if I did not unlock the gate,” he said Tuesday. “I had no choice.”
Six motorbikes and six more men and two women who had recently escaped from the center entered the compound and herded the four women out, Hong Hak said. Staff in the center called police, but the group escaped before they arrived.
A total of seven women had been sent to the center by the municipal department of social affairs on July 18, two days after municipal police rescued them and 13 others from the Vimean Kam Sann club, said Yim Po, the center’s executive director.
The center’s policy requires women who are admitted to remain at the center for two weeks even if they want to leave unless their parents come for them, Yim Po said.
“Some of the women don’t want to stay but we can keep them for two weeks,” he said, but he added that there was no law defining that policy and he was not sure if the women wanted to stay or not.
Throughout the week, a group of men had stopped by the shelter to see the women, Yim Po said, originally saying they were NGO representatives but refusing to identify themselves.
One woman’s parents signed their daughter out earlier in the week, Yim Po said. Then another woman said she was sick and was sent with a woman to a private clinic on Saturday evening.
But sometime during the night, the women escaped from the clinic.
“We didn’t know they had escaped until our staff went to see them in the morning,” he said.
The next day the two women, both 25 years old, turned up with the 10 men, who Yim Po described as gangsters with long hair and earrings, and broke into the compound, taking the remaining four women—one 19-year-old and three 20-year-olds—who had come from Vimean Kam Sann.
Municipal police Chief Heng Pov said he has ordered police to investigate the raid.
“We promise to find the identities of the gangsters and now we are working on the case,” he said. “I did not allow the gang to do this.”
A man who said he was guarding the Vimean Kam Sann club said Tuesday that the club has been closed since last week’s raid by police and that the Cambodian-American owner was out of the country. He said he didn’t know anything about Sunday’s attack on the shelter.
For some, Sunday’s raid conjured memories of December’s raid on an Afesip shelter in which 91 girls and women, most of whom had been taken from the Chai Hour II Hotel the previous day, were removed by a group of men.
Although the gate of the shelter was broken open from the outside, some of the women and girls appeared to want to leave.
The US has threatened to level sanctions against the country for its poor performance on trafficking issues, especially the handling of the raid on Afesip’s women’s shelter.
Yim Po said he did not know if the seven women from Vimean Kam Sann were voluntary or involuntary sex workers, but he said keeping them for two weeks offers them an opportunity to realize there are other opportunities aside from sex work.
He said those who are forced are often the ones who stay on at the center but “for women over 18 who volunteer to be sex workers, they don’t want to stay.”
Afesip legal adviser Aarti Kapoor said staff at her organization’s shelters had heard about the raid on the Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights and were worried they would be targeted again.
“We’re on high alert again,” she said. “It’s really, really sad. It shows the type of security we need. These [gangsters] feel they are above the law.”
Chanthol Oung, director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, said the government needs to provide greater protection for women’s shelters or such raids will continue to grow in numbers.
However, she said while there are potential benefits for keeping women over 18 years old at a center for two weeks, she has long advocated against such policies.
“We have tried to convince the few NGOs who have that policy to drop that policy,” she said.
“It is against the law and we have to respect the women as human beings who can help themselves.”