The relatives and neighbors of two sisters who were arrested in Phnom Penh last week over the alleged sexual enslavement of their 13-year-old niece are angry.
Members of the mostly Cham Muslim community living along the Tonle Sap river in Russei Keo district’s Chraing Chamreh I commune said Monday that it was not the fact that the two women admitted to shackling the girl to the floor of their house for days at a time that filled them with rage, but rather that they were arrested at all.
Police arrested Chea Sros, 32, and Chea Tina, 27, on August 3 after receiving a complaint directly from the girl, who accuses her aunts of chaining her to the floor and allowing Chhin Chhay Ly, 36, to rape her on multiple occasions over the course of a year.
Mr. Chhay Ly was also arrested and charged with purchasing child prostitution for allegedly paying $1,000 to the sisters to have sex with the girl. The sisters were charged with illegal confinement and soliciting child prostitution. In their defense, all three claimed the girl was engaged to Mr. Chhay Ly.
Over the past two days, more than 100 members of the Cham community in Bei village have rallied to the sisters’ defense, thumb-printing a document demanding that the court release them. They say Ms. Sros and Ms. Tina—who raised the girl since her mother abandoned her as a child—were justified in restraining her with chains, but admit that they do not know whether they sold the girl for sex.
“Our people blame the girl for her bad behavior because she did not listen to her aunts, she went out of the house without informing her family and she went to a club,” said Res Rony, the community’s imam.
Asked whether Mr. Chhay Ly had raped the girl or whether the sex was consensual, Mr. Rony said he did not know, but that it was normal for a 13-year-old to be married in Cham culture.
“Based on our Islam, when she has her period, she can get married, but under state law, it is not allowed until she is 18 years old,” he said, adding that the girl had been engaged to Mr. Chhay Ly since January last year.
“Me and many people in our Muslim community joined their [engagement] party last year, but I am not sure whether they loved each other or not,” Mr. Rony said, as other members of the community standing nearby argued that it was normal for an engaged couple to be sexually active.
Sary Fah, 45, a neighbor of Ms. Sros and Ms. Tina, said that she too believed that the sisters had been justified in physically restraining the girl—a view echoed by about a dozen other members of the community interviewed Monday.
“She tried to run from the house four times, and it was difficult for the family to find her each time,” she said. “I cried when police arrested the sisters.”
Meth Ariyah, 36, accused the police of misunderstanding the situation and wrongfully arresting the sisters.
“I think the police made a mistake, because they did not question anyone in our village or do an investigation,” Ms. Ariyah said, adding that she did not think the sisters prostituted their niece.
“I don’t believe they did something like that because they have looked after the girl since she was a child,” she said.
However, Keo Thea, chief of the municipal anti-human trafficking police, said the evidence against the sisters was overwhelming.
“They confessed to taking the girl to have sex with the man and charging him $1,000,” he said. “Mr. Chhay Ly also confessed to giving the money to the sisters.”
Mr. Thea added that the girl was in the care of an NGO in Phnom Penh.