The Ratanakkiri Provincial Court late on Sunday evening charged and released two brothers who were arrested on Friday for kidnapping nine boys from two separate pagodas in Kon Mom district, a court official and police said Monday.
The brothers—Thai Phim, 63, and Chin Kim, 53—were charged with unlawful removal of minors for kidnapping nine children, aged between 8 and 14, and attempting to take them to a pagoda in Kratie province.
A first group of five boys was transported by the suspects to the O’Russei pagoda in Kratie City on Thursday. After receiving missing child complaints from their parents, police arrested a taxi driver in Ratanakkiri as he prepared to bring four more boys to Kratie City. The driver was released after leading police to Mr. Phim and Mr. Kim.
Ren Mut, the deputy district police chief who led the investigation that led to the arrests, said that he was frustrated by the court’s decision given that the men had admitted to taking the boys without informing their families.
“The suspects were freed last night,” Mr. Mut said. “The judge asked me voluntarily to help the men to get back to their home, but I didn’t help them. They should find the way back themselves.”
Mr. Mut said that even though police may not have gathered enough evidence to support more serious charges, the crime of unlawful removal of minors, which carries a sentence of two to five years in prison, was still grave enough to detain the men as they await trial.
“Even though we do not have enough evidence to inculpate them for human trafficking, those guys kidnapped the children without informing authorities or their parents,” he said.
The brothers confessed to bringing the children to Kratie, but claimed their intention was not to traffic the children, according to police. Instead, the brothers said they brought the boys to the pagoda so they could study to become monks.
Morm Vanda, the deputy provincial prosecutor who provisionally charged the two suspects on Sunday, confirmed that Investigating Judge San Bunthoeun released the brothers under court supervision later that night.
“The judge determined the seriousness of the crime and the suspects’ situation and is responsible for his decision,” Mr. Vanda said.
He added that Judge Bunthoeun had ordered further investigation into the possibility that the suspects planned to traffic the boys.
“I think the decision of the judge is reasonable because one of the suspects [Mr. Phim] is blind and they are older people and have permanent residence,” Mr. Vanda said, explaining that the two were therefore unlikely to flee the country.
He added that the provincial court prosecutor, Leav Sreng, could still appeal the decision to release the two.
Judge Bunthoeun could not be reached for comment.
Keo Davy, the deputy provincial police chief in charge of anti-human trafficking, said that police would continue their probe into the true intentions of the brothers.
“First, we are investigating whether the suspects actually brought the children to study at the pagoda or not,” Ms. Davy said.
“Second, we are finding any evidence about whether the suspects have any ringleader behind them to lead the children to beg for money,” she added. “And third, we are investigating whether they kidnapped the children to be prostitutes or not.”
Yim Sethy, police chief of Ta Ong commune, where all the children are from, said the brothers moved from Tbong Khmum province to Ratanakkiri in 2013 and worked as traditional healers in Lumphat district, where Mr. Kim also owns a cassava plantation.
Mr. Sethy said that he did not understand why the court had released the suspects after they confessed to kidnapping the children.
“I think if police released any suspect, the people would place blame and criticize us. But if the court releases any suspect, it’s normal,” he said.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, who is investigating the case, said that the suspects’ claim that they intended to help the group of boys, which includes three Kreung ethnic minorities, seemed unlikely.
“If the children want to be monks, they should inform local authorities…and get approval from their parents first,” Mr. Thy said.
“The residents who live in the countryside, especially the families of ethnic minorities who are poor or lack education, are vulnerable to cheating from bad people,” he said.