A lawyer for two sisters charged with enslaving and prostituting their 13-year-old niece yesterday submitted a petition thumb-printed by 144 members of their community to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court demanding that the pair be released.
The signatories live in the predominantly Cham Muslim commune of Chraing Chamreh I in Russei Keo district and have been vocal in their opposition to authorities’ decision to prosecute Chea Sros, 32, and Chea Tina, 27, who were arrested in August.
The sisters stand charged with illegal confinement and soliciting child prostitution for allegedly accepting $1,000 to allow a local man to have sex with their niece over the course of a year. The man, Chhin Chhay Ly, 36, was charged with purchasing child prostitution.
Peung Yokhiep, the suspects’ lawyer, said she submitted the petition to an investigating judge yesterday morning.
“They want to show that the two suspects did not commit a crime against the girl as charged,” Ms. Yokhiep said. “The judge will question [the residents] and if the judge finds their statements are correct, the judge could release the suspects on bail.”
In the petition, the signatories argue that the sisters are good people and that their case deserves further examination. It says that members of their community were present during an engagement ceremony for the girl and Mr. Chhay Ly. The document did not ask for the man to be released.
He was arrested in August along with the two women, who were accused of shackling their niece to the floor of their home for days at a time.
However, Keo Thea, chief of the municipal anti-human trafficking police, said the alleged crimes did not take place at the house in Chraing Chamreh I commune.
“[The sisters] brought the girl to a guesthouse outside the village [to have sex with Mr. Chhay Ly],” he said without elaborating.
“Let the court consider and decide if [the petition] has value,” Mr. Thea said, noting that all three suspects had admitted to the crimes, and that their statements matched that of the victim.
Farina So, who heads the Documentation Center of Cambodia’s Cham Oral History Project, said that while consent is sought from both parties before an engagement takes place in Cambodia’s Cham Muslim communities, “external factors can push [them] to say yes.”
“My concern [with this case] is the interpretation of Islam, and the knowledge of the imam, which can affect decisions and influence the opinion of the community.” Ms. So said.
“Islamic law, like Khmer law, favors men…. Muslims in Cambodia are moderate but in some cases the practice is still very conservative.”
Steve Penfold, director of Hagar Cambodia, an NGO that helps women and children who have been abused, said that while he could not comment on the case of the 13-year-old, it was not unusual for communities in the country to support those accused of sexual abuse.
“We do see communities rally around alleged perpetrators, without knowing the physical and long-term mental damage that can be done to an individual behind closed doors.”